With the release of I Robot in 2004, we once again had an opportunity to see Isaac Asimov’s vision of a world of robots come to life. His last film was the excellent Bicentennial Man, which did poorly at the box office. I Robot seems to have done better, largely because of the presence of Will Smith, who was one of the film’s producers, and a whole lot more action. But is I Robot truly an Asimovian film? More particularly, is it an Asimovian Science Fiction mystery?
Isaac Asimov has many claims to fame. One of the best known Science Fiction writers ever, he is the author of the famous Foundation series, the Robot series and the story “Nightfall”. If that weren’t enough, he wrote hundreds of books, many not Science Fiction. He wrote a mystery novel, juvenile non-fiction, adult non-fiction, hard science and even a junior Science Fiction series, Lucky Starr.
But in 1953, Asimov did something nobody had done before. He wrote the first true Science Fiction Mystery. “One would think that Science Fiction would blend easily with the mystery. Science itself is so nearly a Mystery and the research scientist so nearly a Sherlock Holmes…R. Austin Freeman’s Dr. Thorndyke is an example of a well-known and successful (fictional) scientist-detective.” Despite this no one had done it well before Asimov.
Science Fiction writers had borrowed from the Mystery genre before 1953 but nobody had ever decided to write a Science Fiction story that played fair by the rules of the genre. Authors who tried include Robert Leslie Bellem, Mickey Spillane and Robert Bloch. Asimov outlines the problems for this task in his introduction to Asimov’s Mysteries (1968).
“Back in the late 1940’s, this was finally explained to me. I was told that “by its very nature” Science Fiction would not play fair with the reader. In a Science Fiction story, the detective could say, “But as you know, Watson, ever since 2175, when all Spaniards learned to speak French, Spanish has been a dead language. How came Juan Lopez, then, to speak those significant words in Spanish.
Or else, he could have his detective whip out an odd device and say, “as you know, Watson, my pocket-frannistan is perfectly capable of detecting the hidden jewel in a trice.”
Asimov also points out that a Science Fiction mystery must be more than a Mystery with science in it. The author must extrapolate something from the science, even if it is only the background. In other words: the story should not be possible in the usual world with the Science Fictional elements taken out. A good example of this type of story is Asimov’s own “What’s In a Name?” from The Saint Detective Magazine, June 1956, where it appeared as “Death of a Honey-Blonde”. He includes it (with apologies) in Asimov’s Mysteries even though it’s only a “science” mystery not a “Science Fiction” mystery.
To prove the nay-sayers wrong he wrote The Caves of Steel in 1953, a Science Fiction novel that was also a mystery. The book features two unlikely detectives: Lije Bailey, a middle-aged denizen of an Earth that no longer lives out-of-doors. The cities of Earth have become a warren from which the people never leave. The Spacers are the race that live on the Outer Worlds, few and mortally afraid of infectious disease.
Asimov describes how the novel came to be in his 1983 reprint introduction : The Caves of Steel is a traditional murder mystery with a detective in Lije Baley. Like the awful buddy films of the last thirty years, Baley is saddled with a partner, a robot partner, R. Daneel Olivaw. The two must find the killer of a prominent Spacer or have Earth’s relations with the Outer Worlds destroyed just when they are crucial to Earth’s survival. The book does a great job of showing how humans can dwell in crowded, subterranean cities, a condition Asimov liked himself.
Having proven himself in a novel, Asimov created another detective to rival Bailey and R. Daneel Olivaw. Using the TBI (or Terrestrial Bureau of Investigations) mentioned in The Caves of Steel as a springboard, Asimov created the honorable policeman, H. Seton Davenport , who like Inspector Lestrade must resort to his own Sherlock Holmes. This detective genius is Dr. Wendell Urth, one of the world’s foremost extraologists. Ironically, Urth fears travel of any kind except walking, and in the tradition of Nero Wolfe, solves his mysteries from the comfort of his own home.
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