The First Law of Robotics states that a robot may not injure a human being, nor by inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. This prime directive has been hard-wired into every robot ever since the development of the positronic brain, a millennium or more ago.
Elijah Baley, NYPD detective has been assigned a robot partner, R. Daneel Olivaw; a robot designed to be able to pass as human; in order to investigate the politically sensitive murder of an important Spacer, from one of the planets originally colonized by Earth. He has asked one of the Earth's leading roboticists to come to New York and has now made a shocking allegation. Baley asks the expert if it is possible to build a robot without the First Law and accuses his own partner of being the murderer.
At first, Dr. Gerrigel, the roboticist, rejects the possibility that any robot could be built without the First Law programmed into its positronic brain; but at Baley's insistence, he agrees to test Daneel. Baley finds the test incomprehensible; ("You've asked nothing that pertains to the First Law"); but Dr. Gerrigel assures him that the tests indicate R. Daneel is fully equipped with Robotic Ethics.
Baley is back to square one with his investigation. Not only that, he has now accused his own partner of involvement in the murder for a second time, only to be proven wrong. He is not in a good mood, and it only worsens when he returns to headquarters and sees Vince, the office boy whose job was taken by R. Sammy. A fellow plainclothesman speculates ruefully about who will be replaced by a robot next. "You know what they say? They say Lyrane Millane, the subetherics dancer, is really a robot."
In private, Daneel comments that Baley's mental aura changed since the previous day. Daneel can detect and analyze brain wave patterns; it was part of his original function as a tool for gathering sociological data. Baley realizes that this was why Commissioner Enderby did not know about cerebroanalysis: Daneel examined him without Enderby ever knowing he was being cerebroanalyzed. From Baley's own brain patters, Daneel senses that he is disturbed; struggling between two conflicting impulses.
Baley insists that the Medievalist conspiracy which pursued them the previous day could not be involved with the murder.
"...I thought it might have, I'll admit that. Yesterday in the kitchen, I thought we were in danger. But what happened? They followed us out, were quickly lost on the strips, and that was that. That was not the action of well organized and desperate men."
"They're Medievalists. They're harmless crackpots... They're soft, dreamy people who find life too hard for them here and get lost in an ideal world of the past that never really existed. If you could cerebroanalyze a movement as you do an individual, you would find they are no more capable of murder than Julius Enderby himself."
This read-though of the book, I've noted some similarities between the Medievalists of the novel and our present-day Tea Partyists, so I'm not sure if I would call them exactly harmless. Daneel is skeptical of Baley's analysis too. He suggests that Elijah's wife, Jessie, is herself a member of the Medievalist conspiracy.
Baley of course rejects this, but Daneel points out that there were no rumors going around the city about a robot working with the police force; the only way Jessie could have known Daneel was a robot was if she heard it from the Medievalists. Baley refuses to believe it; but just then R. Sammy interrupts to tell Baley that his wife is here asking to see him.
"I can't go on, Lije," she says, distraught. "I can't. I cant sleep or eat. I've got to tell you.... I've done a terrible thing. Such a terrible thing. Oh, Lije..." Baley realizes that the police station is far too public a place for this conversation, so he hustles his wife into a squad car with Daneel and takes them onto the service roadways where they can talk.
Jessie admits to being a member of a Medievalist group.. She's been a member for years; since about the time she and Elijah had their quarrel about her wicked Biblical namesake. When Baley asks if they've committed any violent crimes, she's shocked. Mostly her group has held meetings, talk about the Good Old Days and how things would be different Come the Revolution. And then they'd eat sandwiches and schmooze. They'd hold there meetings down in the same network of access tunnels Baley was driving her through; since the roadways were only used by emergency vehicles, they were never disturbed.
This all fits in with Baley's picture of the Medievalists: "a harmless little secret kaffee-klatsch". But someone had to tell them where to meet where they'd be out of the way of emergency traffic. Someone had to plant the story Jessie heard about the robot. Someone organized the mob at the shoe store and sent the gang who chased Baley and Daneel from the cafeteria. "Did any strangers come to the meetings? You know what I mean: big shots from Central Headquarters?" Thinking it over, Jessie is able to tentatively identify one of the people Daneel recognized from the files as having been at the shoe store and at the communal kitchen the day before: a yeast worker named Francis Clousarr.
Baley drops her off and tells her to take Bentley to stay with her mother for a few days until he can straighten things out. After she's gone, Daneel asks Baley why the name Jezebel had such an effect on her.
Baley said, "It is hard to explain. Jezebel is a rare name. It belonged once to a woman of very bad reputation. My wife treasured that fact. It gave her a vicarious feeling of wickedness and compensated for a life that was uniformly proper."
"Why would a law-abiding woman wish to feel wicked?"
Balely almost smiled. "Women are women, Daneel. Anyway, I did a very foolish thing. In a moment of irritation I insisted that the historic Jezebel was not particularly wicked and was, if anything, a good wfe. I've regretted that ever since.
"It turned out," he went on, "that I had made Jessie bitterly unhappy. I had spoiled something for her that couldn't be replaced. I suppose what followed was her way of revenge. I imagine she wished to punish me by engaging in activity of which she knew I wouldn't approve. I don't say the wish was a conscious one."
"Can a wish be anything but conscious? Is that not a contradiction in terms?"
Baley changes the subject to talking about the Bible, something Daneel is also unfamiliar with. "It is the sacred book of about half of Earth's population," Baley explains. "...Various portions of it, when properly interpreted, contain a code of behavior which many men consider best suited to the ultimate happiness of mankind." When Daneel asks if this code is incorporated into Earth's laws, Baley tells him "The code doesn't lend itself to legal enforcement. It must be obeyed spontaneously by each individual out of a longing to do so. It is in a sense higher than any law could be."
This doesn't make sense to Daneel's robotic understanding of justice, so Elijah elaborates by telling him a story from the Bible: the story of Jesus and the Woman Caught in Adultery. Here we have another example of Asimov using his polymath powers and dipping into Biblical scholarship. It's interesting that the story he chose to illustrate an important theme of the Bible is one which Bart Ehrman, in his book Misquoting Jesus, uses to demonstrate how the text of the Bible is unreliable. Go Figure. But Baley presses on.
"...The story is meant to show that there is something even higher than the justice which you have been filled with. There is a human impulse known as mercy, a human act known as forgiveness."
"I am not acquainted with those words, partner Elijah.:
"I know," muttered Baley. "I know."
Baley and Daneel go to Yeast-town, the district comprising much of the former state of New Jersey where yeast is grown and processed into most of the food for New York City, to interrogate Francis Clousarr. At first Clousarr denies everything; he is a proud and belligerent man with a deep hatred of robots. Baley has little real evidence against that man that will hold up in court, but tricks Clousarr into admitting he knows Daneel is a robot. "Anyone can tell!" Clousarr insists, but Baley knows better.
While Daneel reports back to the Commissioner, Baley has a private conversation with Clousarr about Medievalism. Baley suggests Dr. Falstofe's vision of Earthmen colonizing new worlds as a way to fulfil the Medievalist dream of escaping the Cities and returning to the soil. Clousarr mocks him and is hostile to the idea of working with robots; Baley reacts angrily:
"Why not, for the love of Heaven? I don't like them, either, but I'm not going to knife myself for the sake of a prejudice. What are we afraid of in robots? If you want my guess, it's a sense of inferiority...
"...Look at this Daneel I've been with for over two days. He's taller than I am, stronger, handsomer.... He's got a better memory and knows more facts. He doesn't have to sleep or eat. He's not troubled by sickness or panic or love or guilt.
"But he's a machine. I can do anything I want to him, the way I can to that microbalance right there. If I slam the microbalance, it won't hit me back. Neither will Daneel. I can order him to take a blaster to himself and he'll do it.
"We can't ever build a robot that will be even as good as a human being in anything that counts, let alone better. We can't create a robot with a sense of beauty or a sense of ethics or a sense of religion. There's no way we can raise a positronic brain one inch above the level of perfect materialism.
"We can't, damn it, we can't. Not as long as we don't understand what makes our own brains tick. Not as long as things exist that science can't measure. What is beauty, or goodness, or art, or love, or God? We're forever teetering on the brink of the unknowable, and trying to understand what can't be understood. It's what makes us men."
Daneel returns with bad news. There's been another murder; at least by some points of view. R. Sammy, the robot office boy working at headquarters, has been found deactivated; his brain fried out by a device that emits alpha particles. Someone evidently ordered Sammy to go into a photographic supply closet and put the alpha-sprayer to his head.
The Commissioner is gravely concerned about this incident and tells Baley that a full investigation will have to be made. Vince, the boy whose job R. Sammy took, had a motive to kill him, but could not have acquired the alpha-sprayer, a specialized piece of equipment used in atomic science. As Enderby mutters about motive, Baley puts the pieces together and can guess where all this is heading.
He had a motive to kill R. Sammy. The robot saw his wife come into the station in a state of hysteria; she might have said something incriminating in front of him. Baley could have wanted to keep Sammy quiet, and would have had the opportunity to get an alpha-sprayer the previous day when he and Daneel passed through the power plant while eluding their pursuers on the strips. "The murder was arranged deliberately in order to throw suspicion on me."
Daneel then drops another bombshell on Baley. "I am sorry, Elijah". He has been in radio contact with Dr. Falstofe all through the investigation and has just received word from him. "Our people in Spacetown, as a result of my information, have decided to bring that investigation to an end, as of today, and to begin plans for leaving Spacetown and Earth."
The whole purpose of the Spacer presence on earth was in order to induce part of Earth's population to colonize another world. Daneel was constructed in order to find the best way to accomplish this. Dr. Falstofe's earlier conversation with Baley was an experiment to see if a reasonably intelligent City Dweller could be persuaded to do this. In fact, Daneel tells Baley, the doctor drugged him to make him more receptive to the spiel. Baley does not like this, but the author passes lightly over that bit; too lightly, I think. Daneel noticed a difference in the brain patterns of Clousser after Baley shared the Gospel According to Fastolfe with him and came to the conclusion that the ideal segment of Earth's population to become colonists are the Medievalists themselves. The Medievalists have the dissatisfaction with the status quo of Earth's Cities, and also the romantic idealism to take the risk of colonization. The Spacers will have to adjust their methods to bring it about, but now they are certain the new wave of colonization is possible.
Baley tries arguing with Daneel to continue the investigation. "Where's your justice circuit, Daneel? Is this justice?" You cannot argue with a machine. Daneel's people have achieved their main objective; continuing the murder investigation would do nothing to help that, and might even complicate the Spacer's plans. Baley asks if Daneel has any curiosity. "Such a desire exists within me, when the extension of knowledge is necessary for the performance of an assigned task." Daneel replies.
Baley recalls the questions Daneel had asked previously about the Commissioner's glasses and Bentley's contact lenses. And then it hits him.
There's a classic moment in many mystery stories where the detective knows he has all the pieces he needs to solve the case; he just can't quite get it. And then a chance comment or observation reminds him of something, or puts the clues in the correct context; and it all becomes clear.
Baley knows who did it; and how the murder was committed. But he needs Daneels help. He makes one last try: "Then Project Spacetown is concluded as of today and with it the Sarton investigation. Is that it?" Daneel acknowledges this is true. "But today is not yet over... There is an hour and a half until midnight."
Daneel assents. For the next ninety minutes he is still on the case. Baley tells him to retrieve the crime scene photos. If he's right, there should be a piece of evidence on them that he'll need to prove his theory.
The Commissioner calls Baley into his office. He tells Elijah that Clousarr has identified Jezebel as a member of the Medievalist conspiracy and demands that Baley account for his recent actions. Baley counters by insisting that he is being framed; and that the perpetrator of both murders is Enderby himself.
There have been two impossible situations in this case. A robot is incapable of killing a human; but a robot can act as an unwitting accomplice. Enderby is psychologically incapable of cold-blooded murder; but not of destroying a robot.
As Baley reconstructs the case, Enderby is a member of the Medievalist organization; probably an important one. With his old-fashioned glasses and windows and enthusing about the open air life, he obviously has Medievalist sympathies. From his official contact with the Spacers, he would have known Dr. Sarton and known about R. Daneel. So he had R. Sammy bring a blaster cross-country to Spacetown to bypass Spacer security. He planned to go to Sarton's house early in the morning; shoot R. Daneel when the robot answered the door; then give the blaster back to Sammy to dispose of.
Enderby had mentioned earlier about breaking his glasses that weekend; Baley had originally assumed he had dropped them in the stress of being questioned. Now he guesses differently. Shooting something that looked like a man, even though he knew it was only a robot, was not something Enderby could easily do. He removed his glasses to clean them, a nervous habit of his; he accidentally dropped them and they broke. Just then the door to Sarton's house opened and Enderby saw what he thought was the robot built in Sarton's image. It was only after he pulled the trigger that he realized he had killed the real Dr. Sarton.
As he outlines his theory, Baley is scanning the crime scene pictures Daneel provided for him and finds the evidence he was looking for. Tiny shards of glass on the floor. The Spacers, being genetically perfect, have no need of corrective lenses and did not recognize what they were. Baley deduces that they are fragments of Enderby's glasses -- proof that Enderby was at the scene of the crime before it happened.
Enderby breaks down and confesses. Ever since he mistakenly killed Sarton, he's been on the edge, and confronted with guilt, he collapses. But Baley doesn't want Enderby arrested. "The Spacers have more on their minds than your prosecution. If you co-operate with them---" He offers the Commissioner a deal, which Daneel, speaking for Dr. Falstofe, confirms. The Spacers are willing to forget the past if Enderby will help steer the Medievalists into a colonization program. Enderby agrees.
Before Elijah and Daneel leave Enderby's office, Daneel turns to the Commissioner.
The robot said, "I have been trying, friend Julius, to understand some remarks Elijah made to me earlier. Perhaps I am beginning to, for it suddenly seems to me that the destruction of what should not be, that is, the destruction of what you people call evil, is less just and desirable than the conversion of this evil into what you call good."
He hesitated, then, almost as though he were surprised at his own words, he said, "Go, and sin no more!"