This was my first time reading anything by Asimov, which is a shame, because I'm very familiar with a lot of stories which I now see come directly from the basic concepts about robots here. Actually, I listened to an audio version, narrated by William Dufris, and the voice he chose for Daneel sounds a lot like Data. And Daneel was obviously an inspiration for Data.
Summarizing the plot: a police detective finds himself “immersed in a nightmare of murder and robotics.” The detective, Lije Baley, is way out of his depth, and he makes several major mistakes. I guessed who the murderer was right away, but I had no idea what had actually happened until Baley figured it out, which makes it a pretty good mystery novel, in my opinion. There's a decent amount of philosophical stuff in this book, too, but I found it was woven pretty well into the actual story, along with a lot of clever worldbuilding.
This book was first published in 1954, and Baley has the mentality of someone from that era. He has some terrible ideas about women, seeming to view them as commodities. I was thinking at first that humanity would need some sort of Handmaid's-Tale-style chain of events to lead to this kind of future, but I suppose that this is how things were in the 50s. On reflection, though, I think the narrative itself shows that Baley was wrong not to view women as making their own choices for their own reasons, although he definitely doesn't understand that fact. Baley is not meant to be some kind of paragon, and neither are any of the other characters in the book.
One of the problems I've had lately reading mainstream fiction, even recently published books, is that I always feel like most of its sole point-of-view characters who are cishet white dudes are meant to have ordinary reactions to events, easy for all readers to relate to, even though I have different reactions myself. So, I end up feeling alienated. But I didn't have that problem with this book; beyond Baley's origins in the 50s, he's written as a product of the fictional time and place where this is set: Earth in the far future. Maybe because he is doubly removed from my own experience, then, his reactions and opinions make sense to me, and he feels like a well-rounded character, rather than an “ordinary” guy whose point-of-view I can't completely sympathize with.
The New York City of the future (again, I see that it was probably the inspiration for the New New York of Futurama) is a dystopia, but we don't instantly see how bad it really is. At first, I also thought the spacers' lives were utopian, but it turns out there's quite a dark side to their society also. So, the hopeful ending makes a lot of sense. I know there are more stories set in this world and I'm curious to learn what happens next to this version of the human race and its robot buddies.
I read that there's going to be a new TV or movie adaptation of this book soon, and I'm really looking forward to how that turns out. While reading, I was drawing mental parallels to the modern world, and to the civil rights struggles of the 1960s, with the bit about city-dwellers having to use a separate bathroom from the spacers, for example. There has probably been a lot written about how the book portrays prejudice, but my own initial thinking about it was a bit off the mark. Baley, the medievalists, and the spacers all have some type of bigotry towards some other group or groups, but it isn't really the same thing as real-world prejudices. Baley and the other city-dwellers see robots as less than human, and I'm coming to this book already thinking robots are people. But I only think that because of the fictional robots I'm familiar with, who were written to seem human. Daneel doesn't really feel like a person, just a really good copy, with serious shortcomings. It makes sense that the city-dwellers don't see robots as people. I'm not sure that the spacers do either, which is more troubling, but this story doesn't explore that concept.
There's a lot more talking and thinking than action, but the writing style is sharp; I was never bored. It's also not very long and doesn't feel like it has any unnecessary parts, in the manner of the best classic short stories. I don't think it will be too long before I pick up something else by Asimov.