The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov

The greatness of a novel depends on the reader.  Any novel you read that you heavily identify with increases its chance at being a gripping yarn.  The Naked Sun was a page turner for me because I have a touch of agoraphobia.  Asimov imagines a future Earth of 5022 AD of being so overcrowded that people live underground and this conditions our descendents to be afraid of open spaces.

TheNakeSun  

The Naked Sun is a murder mystery about a detective from Earth, Elijah Baley, who fears open spaces, visiting the planet Solaria, where people fear contact with other people.  Solaria only has 20,000 inhabitants, each supported by thousands of robots.  Citizens of Solaria live on grand estates separate from each other by thousands of square miles.  Even marriage is traumatic to Solarians, with most spouses choosing to live apart in their large mansions, and they consider the topic of children to be vulgar.

To everyone on Solaria it is obvious that the only person that could have killed Rikaine Delmarre is his wife Gladia.  They all fear contact with each other so much that they know deep in their heart only a spouse could have gotten close enough to bludgeon Rikaine to death.  Baley can’t accept this.

Elijah Baley is once again partnered with R. Daneel Olivaw, an android from Aurora that he first met in the book The Caves of Steel.  The challenges that detective Baley face on a strange new world are many.  He must overcome his fear of the outdoors, find ways to to escape his overly protective robot partner, R. Daneel Olivaw, who may have different political motivations for working on the case, while most of all, convince the murder suspects that they need to meet with him in person, an act of perversion from their point of view.

Normally I don’t like mysteries, and I really had no interest in who  murdered Rikaine, but for three days I was always anxious to get back to this book.  The story grabbed me because of its psychological issues, and although their extremes were unbelievable, I found it very believable that humans could create such diverse cultures that would alter the thinking of their people.

Strangely enough, Asimov didn’t explore the psychology of his robots.  The only fear he gave to robots was of seeing humans come to harm.  And except for Daneel, I was never sure if the robots were intelligent, conscious and self-aware creatures, or just machines that talked.  Asimov has Elijah Baley call the robots “Boy” which is offensive to modern reader because of its racist connections.  Was he drawing parallels to their condition, implying the robots were slaves?  Was he suggesting that humans couldn’t deal with robots as equals, even though Daneel actions and thoughts were often superior to Baley.

In early Asimov robot stories, the role of the robot and their deeply programmed Three Laws of Robotics is usually just a plot device for creating a story gimmick.  Asimov doesn’t really explore the philosophical implications of intelligent machines.  Asimov, a writer of space travel stories, was afraid of flying, and so he used his knowledge of phobias to create the heart of The Naked Sun.  This story explores human nature rather than robot nature.

If Asimov would have studied the nature of his robots more, he probably wouldn’t have had a murder mystery.  Robots have perfect memories and robots in this story are all connected by radio, so in a society like that of Solaria, no human activity should have gone unrecorded.  Asimov shows us incidents of individual robots going insane from seeing a human harmed, but Asimov fails to explain why all robots don’t go bonkers when one robot sees a human murdered because of their instant communication would create a hive-like mind.

Even though Asimov presents the world of Solaria as seriously flawed I have encountered a number of readers that would love to live on a world like Solaria.  At first this shocked me, but I’ve discovered to what extent some people really don’t like other people, at least hordes of other people, and they would find great comfort living on a pastoral world populated mostly by robots.  I don’t have that phobia, and I was surprised to find it in some of my friends.  Since writing The Implications of Sexbots, some people I know have expressed just how much they don’t like people, and how comforting they find the idea of robots.  I find this revealing and shocking.    

I have even heard from people that want to live as solitary as the Solarians, even to the point of avoiding sexual contact.  This makes me wonder if Asimov hasn’t tapped into a deep rooted psychological desire that makes this novel far more successful than just a simple murder mystery.  This is probably the real reason why the book is still in print fifty plus years after its original publication.

Most people fear AI and intelligent robots, and picture robots from movies like the Terminator series, or television shows like Battlestar Galactica.  These people especially worry about the coming technological singularity.  Other people love the idea of robots and expect them to be cute like WALL-E, or Number 5 from Short Circuit, or even the very human like Commander Data.  Read the Wikipedia entry on Robots to see just how complex and real robots are now, and read robots in fiction and literature to see how far ranging we’ve explored this topic.

I listened to the excellent audio production of The Naked Sun from Tantor Media, read with wonderful dramatic flair by William Dufris, and available through Audible.com, Amazon.com and iTunes.  I highly recommend the audio edition because I believe the subtleties of the story come through so much better with this fine reading that expresses so much emotion.

I also recommend reading the customer reviews at Amazon after you have finished the novel.  They show a kind of enthusiastic love that few novels get and reveal that The Naked Sun isn’t just a simple science fiction novel.  I read the book first as a kid and really didn’t get it, mainly because my bouts of agoraphobia were in the future.  And I’m curious if people without phobias will really get into this story.

JWH – 3/8/9

8 Responses

  1. Really interesting piece! I too read Naked Sun (and all Asimov’s robot novels) when I was in middle teens – and too young, really, to properly understand it, though that didn’t stop me enjoying it simply because I adored all sci-fi: anything with space travel in it was OK by me!

    So, thirty-five years later, remembering the enjoyment, I went and re-read the whole lot again – and went and fell in love bigtime: first with all robots, then with Daneel and also with Giskard. Follow on Andrew Martin, Sonny, Cutie, Data, Dors Venabili, and other notable Asimov humaniforms (and yes WALL-E is very cute too!)

    I have a mass of phobias, fears, and hang-ups so maybe Asimov has, as you said, “tapped into a deep rooted psychological desire”. I don’t fly, and don’t like going out – not, like Elijah, because it’s open space – but because of people and cars and noise and bustle.

    I would’ve hated to have lived in the Caves of Steel though (even though there weren’t cars, and the Expressway might’ve been quite fun to go on) as I’m quite claustrophobic and hate cramped places. And the lack of windows and fresh air down there would disgust me. People must’ve been so unhealthy with that fug and lack of sunshine, I’m amazed Elijah could function at all. And as for the ‘food’….yurk!

    I suppose the robots, whilst being able to instantly communicate by radio wave when necessary, would surely be able to switch off so that they weren’t constantly bombarded with others’ waves, yet could pick up if a signal was put through (like a human with a phone) – sorry, hope this makes sense….

    If heaven was Aurora, and there were people I hadn’t liked during life, well there’s space enough to avoid them and anyway I could have all those lovely robots to protect me!

  2. Excellent post, Jim. Yes, “The Naked Sun” is a great book, especially considering that it was first published in 1957.

    Two comments: First, I very much think that “Boy” was supposed to be offensive. Elijah’s society hated and feared robots, after all, and that was a term used to emphasize human superiority (which, with Daneel at least, seemed to be mostly imaginary) and dominance. And I imagine that Asimov enjoyed the implied dig at southern racists in the U.S.

    Most robot stories have a connection with racism, or with the idea of an underclass, at least.

    Second, Solaria was flawed, if I remember correctly, because that kind of society was a dead-end for human beings. It might be attractive to many people – especially now that we’ve got the Internet, so we’re used to social interactions at a distance – but that doesn’t mean it’s healthy, or that it’s the right direction for the species as a whole.

    Incidentally, one of the reasons I admire “The Naked Sun” is because it seems to be especially ahead of its time today, don’t you think? These days, I tend to see Solaria as the Internet culture taken to an extreme. After all, I’ll never meet face to face any of the people with whom I regularly converse online.

    Bill

  3. Bill, I meant to compare Solaria with the Internet, but forgot. I tend to start thinking about a blog post when I’m in the shower and I get a lot of ideas, but by the time I get dressed and eat breakfast, many of those ideas have slipped away.

    And I think you’re right in that The Naked Sun does feel ahead of its time because of the Internet. Will the Internet turn us all into Solarians? I saw a movie this weekend, The Class, about a French middle school, and some of the kids talked about how they hated to go out and preferred to stay in their room and play on their computers.

    I’ve even seen an Internet movement slogan, “No Kid Left Inside,” that was meant to be funny, but was based on a real worry.

    And Catherine mentions she doesn’t like going out, so how many people are already like her? My agoraphobia mostly stimmed from a heart arrythmia problem, and once it was fixed I felt better about going out. I’m a lot more social now-a-days, but my laziness often pushes me to stay in. Many of my friends are becoming homebodies. Of course, that might be part of the aging process. But the Internet allows us to stay social.

  4. [...] 40+ years ago.  I now feel like Sturgeon is the Faulkner of science fiction.  I just finished The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov that I considered a mildly fun, but mostly boring robot novel as a teen.  This [...]

  5. “The greatness of a novel depends on the reader.”

    Wow, isn’t that the truth! One can argue the relative merits or lack thereof of any novel, but when you read one and it just gets to you then, for you, it is a great novel. And it is often hard to believe it wouldn’t touch others in the same way.

    That is why I try not to be too harsh in my criticisms unless the novel itself is really poorly written. With editors I find it nearly inexcusable when something is published in which the author has a poor command of grammar.

    Even with its flaws this sounds like an interesting read. I’ve only read the first series of shorts, I, Robot, and while there were indeed a lot of plot devices I thought there were at least the seeds of some philosophical discussions on what it would mean to have truly intelligent machines. These were of course more fear based which makes them lean more towards being devices to tell an entertaining story. I did enjoy them though.

    I’m keeping my eye out for a decent copy of Robot Dreams. I like McQuarrie’s illustrations and would like to have a nice copy of it.

  6. OK Jim, you convinced me. I saw the audio version of NS at the library and faster than you can say iTunes, I tossed it into my iPod. I’ll let you know what I think, but given your strong endorsement, I kinda think I’ll like it.

  7. Glenn, be sure and report back. By the way, do you have any phobias? If you don’t, I’m wondering if you’ll like The Naked Sun as much.

  8. [...] The Naked Sun – Isaac Asimov [...]

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