Top critical review
3.0 out of 5 starsImportant for the fictional depiction of robots, but not very well written
Reviewed in the United States 🇺🇸 on January 23, 2008
When Stanislaw Lem famously castigated American SF writers for the very low quality of their books, it could well have been books like this one that he had in mind. This is not to say that there aren't many good SF writers both before and after Lem's attack, but there is a lot of justice to his comments. Far too many SF novels have only half-sketched characters, dialogues that are more like rough drafts than finished products and prose that can often be more than slightly embarrassing. This is true even with a legitimate genius like Philip K. Dick, who because he was writing for the word and not for history, left many of his books only slightly finished. I'm being very generous in giving this three stars and I am doing that because Asimov does deserve credit for helping to bring the robot back into popular imagination during the 1950s. Through his short stories and novels he helped established some ground rules for the writing about robots, most famously his rules of robotics. Asimov was somewhat better off financially than was Dick, but ultimately he also wrote for publication more than for perfection. And publishing books at the rate of around ten a year as an adult meant that taking time to polish and refine them was a luxury he could not afford.
But on literary grounds, this novel is a mess. It is a mixed hybrid, a detective novel masquerading as a SF novel. It is more successful as SF than as a mystery. The model for the detective seems to come far more from Agatha Christie and Ellery Queen than Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. This is too bad, since the latter might have meant a take on things closer to BLADE RUNNER. There is nothing of film noir in this novel. There is just some cop solving a crime. But it isn't a very interesting crime and the mystery isn't very mysterious. And the way the cop Lije Baley keeps jumping forcefully to outrageous conclusions (on two different occasions he leaps to accusing two different people of murder without coming anywhere close to assembling and testing all the evidence).
Much of the dialogue is just impossible to take. Anyone doubting me should just attempt to read any of it out loud. I suspect that Asimov wrote down dialogue only once, not to reread it or rewrite it later. Even if he did look at the draft a second time, he clearly did not lavish much attention on it.
The robot Daneel Olivaw is an interesting early fictional robot. Artificial people had, of course, been seen before. In fact, the book widely considered the first SF novel, Mary Shelley's FRANKENSTEIN, concerns the making of an artificial person. And the first SF film was Fritz Lang's METROPOLIS, with its famous female robot. But despite these examples, only a few fictional robots appeared before Asimov began lavishing his love on them. In general, I think Asimov was better in writing about robots in short form rather than in novels. His best work on robots remains the short stories comprising I, ROBOT. Today it is perhaps hard or impossible to recreate the impact reading a story about a robot who could almost pass for human had for readers at the time. When Karel Capek's R.U.R. (the stage play that introduced the word "robot" to the world) was first shown, theater goers were said to respond with shock at the appearance of actors portraying artificial people. But today, after Gort in THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, Robbie (himself a homage to Asimov) in FORBIDDEN PLANET, Roy Blaty in BLADE RUNNER, Data in STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION, and Six and Sharon in the new BATTLESTAR GALACTICA, we are used to respond to a far more sophisticated form of artificial person. Daneel is curious, but coming after all these other creations, not terribly interesting or impressive. I think the most that we can say is that he must have been fascinating for readers at a different time.
I'm not sure whether to recommend this or not. Asimov has not garnered much respect from the literary critical community. The brute fact is that he is not a very good writer. Critics have not embraced him like them have Philip K. Dick or Kim Stanley Robinson or Stanislaw Lem or Ursula LeGuin or J. G. Ballard or Marge Piercy. So, I think I can say that if you approach this book as an experienced reader of great general literature, you will find this book to be a thundering disappointment. If you are exclusively a reader of SF and read little or nothing outside the field, go ahead. It isn't the worst book ever written. And it does have the historical importance of laying out one of the first templates for writing about robots.