Welcome to the first Summer of Asimov, where we'll be examining the third of the so-called Big Three Golden Age Science-Fiction authors. We've already covered the technologist Arthur C. Clarke and the political futurist Robert A. Heinlein, so now we get to the philosophical fantasist, Isaac Asimov. Covering Asimov adequately over one summer proved to be a daunting task, especially with the current coronovirus situation, so I've had to split it into two. This year, we'll be spending most of our time with the Robot and Empire series--tackled in a carefully chosen order--and next year, I plan to cover the entire Foundation series. So sit back, relax, and enjoy some vintage, epic science-fiction from one of the grandmasters of the genre.
That robot's thinking, "Why was I taking orders from this clown?"
Here's a little peek behind the curtain. I read, like most people, as an escape, and one of the reasons I love science-fiction is that it hits that sweet spot for me: divorced enough from reality to let me drift away from my troubles, but filled with enough depth beneath the surface that it can give me things to think about and apply to real world experiences. For example, during this coronavirus pandemic that is sweeping the world, Isaac Asimov has been a constant companion, a friendly voice to help me forget that I'm locked away in my house, quarantined from my neighbors, my friends, and my extended family. Don't get me wrong--quarantine has been relatively nice to me, since nobody here has gotten sick or lost their job--but I'd be lying if I told you I wasn't getting increasingly stir-crazy and stressed out from lack of human contact. So thank you, Isaac Asimov, for helping me forget that. ...I mean, until now.
In his second robot novel, The Naked Sun, Asimov paints a portrait of a sparsely populated world where people tend to live alone in their houses without ever interacting with one another except through virtual conference calls. A person on the planet of Solaria can go several decades without touching another human being, and even couples who are mated with one another tend to keep away from each other whenever possible. Being in the same room as another person is one of the planet's strongest taboos, and as such, the people of Solaria are a furtive, fidgety bunch who have grown so accustomed to isolation that they are horrified at the idea of breathing each other's air.
The Earth detective Elijah Baley and his one-time android partner, Daneel Olivaw, have been brought to Solaria to investigate an unthinkable and perplexing murder, where a man has been bludgeoned to death in the presence of a robot, even though nobody, not even his wife, was comfortable with the idea of getting physically close enough to him to commit the deed. At first, Baley must conduct his entire investigation from a distance, using the planet's holographic telecommunications system, without any access to the body--which has been cremated--the scene of the crime--which has been meticulously scrubbed clean--the prime suspect--who refuses to share actual space with anyone--the robot witness--who was broken beyond repair and destroyed--and the murder weapon--which is still unknown.
Meanwhile, the robots in the back are still doing the Time Warp
Baley must also contend with the idea of open, empty space. A native of the overcrowded Cities of Earth, enormous single buildings that span hundreds of miles in which none of the inhabitants need face the open air, he has been thrust into a seemingly opposite existence, with sprawling estates where your nearest neighbor can be hundreds of miles away. This intense culture shock is what carries most of the novel, and it is handled far better here than the similar clash of cultures was handled in the previous novel, The Caves of Steel.
Indeed, my primary complaint from The Caves of Steel, the character of Elijah Baley, is much better handled here. He is a much more endearing person, relatable as a fish-out-of-water working man whose prejudices are less extreme and whose emotions are more consistently appropriate. As a detective, he also feels much more competent, much slower to leap to conclusions and much quicker to adapt to the perplexities of the crime and its setting. At around the halfway point of the story, he becomes confident enough to really assert himself and get literally in the face of some of the other characters, and though he does have to reluctantly trick his robot friend Olivaw to succeed, he does it in a clever and satisfying way.
Olivaw still shines as a fantastic character in his own right, but this novel leans much more heavily on its human protagonist, who, through the course of his investigation, must reconcile the apparently opposite attitudes of Solaria and Earth while finding a lot of surprising common ground between cultures that couldn't seem further apart. In that respect, The Naked Sun is a startling novel that manages to be about much more than robots and alien worlds, building on a lot of the groundwork laid in The Caves of Steel to really dwell on the nature of prejudice, of cultural misunderstanding, and of pretty deep sociology.
"Exterminate! Kill all trees!"
Asimov also manages to find a way to include a quasi-romantic femme fatale in Gladia, the victim's wife and prime suspect in his murder. She is definitely an interesting character, and she brings a sexual energy to proceedings that is often lacking from Asimov's work. From a purely formulaic aspect, this novel is a straight-up murder mystery novel from the fifties, full of all the typical clichés of the genre but tweaked just enough to be fun and unexpected. Granted, for the first half of the novel, there is pretty much only one possible suspect, and you don't meet the central figure of the underlying conspiracy until near the end, but as an onion being peeled, the society of Solaria is fascinatingly realized and, yeah, accidentally prescient.
As for that final conspiracy (spoiler alert), it's amazing that it all hinges on a new understanding of the First Law of Robotics and the potential within it for the robot apocalypse Asimov always seems to shy away from. One of the reasons the Three Laws are so famous is that they seem so airtight and simple, and yet, with a little clever thought, cracks can be found in their seemingly unshakable logic. Asimov, a true scientific thinker, was always looking for flaws in his thesis, and in The Naked Sun, he manages to find an enormous one. Granted, by the time it is revealed in the story, the reader has probably already realized it, but I consider that a mark in the novel's favor--mystery novels are always more fun when you can actually figure them out from the information given to you.
In the end, The Naked Sun is a restructuring of The Caves of Steel that is handled much better, with a more fleshed-out and likeable protagonist and a situation that lends itself to more entertaining and meaningful scenarios. The fact that it just so happens to align a little too closely with real life at this particular moment is neither a fault nor a credit; it's just a coincidence, which is something you won't find in an Asimov mystery. As quarantine reading goes, The Naked Sun is an excellent book to put on your list, if only to remind you of the importance of human contact as we slowly crawl out of our caves and make our way back to the world.
-e. magill 6/18/2020
SPECIAL THANKS TO MY PATRONS: