Friday, April 8, 2011

FFB: The Naked Sun - Isaac Asimov

I've always enjoyed how some writers have mastered genre blending. My personal favorite will always be the detective novel that incorporates the supernatural. There are, however, examples of science fiction detective novels that are just as brilliant. Given that so much of the best science fiction deals with the study of alien cultures and mores it's a wonder to me that there aren't more sci-fi/detective novels out there. But then again maybe there are, and I have yet to discover them. One of the best and earliest practitioners of the sci-fi detective novel was Isaac Asimov who not only wrote a detective plot into his some books, but added the extra bonus of making those plots impossible crimes. He is in my estimation the John Dickson Carr of the science fiction realm.

The Naked Sun is a sequel to an earlier detective sci -fi book (Caves of Steel) featuring the same leading characters of Elijah Baley, a policeman from Earth, and R. Daneel Olivaw, a robot with a very human-like appearance and build. The Naked Sun is, in my opinion, a far more interesting novel on all levels including the impossible crime elements and is astonishingly timely for the 21st century. It can easily be read and enjoyed without having read Caves of Steel first.

Whereas Caves of Steel is set on Earth The Naked Sun takes place on the colonized planet Solaria in what is known as the Outer Worlds. Baley is personally summoned to help solve the first ever murder committed on the planet populated by only 25,000 Spacers (term for humans living on colonized planets) who lead solitary lives and rarely if ever personally interact with other Solarians. Baley paired once again with Daneel Olivaw (who is mysteriously incognito as a human) must investigate the death of Dr. Rikaine Delmarre, a genetic scientist (or fetologist as he is dubbed in the book) who was in charge of the Solarian birthing center. His wife, Gladia, is the prime suspect. She was the only person allowed to see her husband. As robots must obey the primary laws of serving humans first and never allowing them to come to harm it appears that a robot could not have been responsible for the death. Gladia claims total innocence in the bludgeoning death of her husband. It appears to be an impossible crime if what she says is true, for no one but robots were present when her husband was killed.

Baley faces a major culture clash as a Earthman who is used to living in the underground cities (the "caves of steel") back home. The Solarians live above ground and enjoy a much longer day in the light of the naked sun. He must overcome both his dread of the outdoors as much as the Solarians must overcome their fear and hatred of Earthmen who they view as vile and filthy. Why? Because on Earth humans interact with one another, touch one another, and "see" one another on a daily basis. The Solarians make only rare visits to see one another and only touch one another when they are genetically selected to create a child. They do most of their interacting by "viewing" - a technology similar to the internet Skype service of today but with the added sci-fi bonus of screenless 3D images that can travel with the viewer from room to room or even outdoors.

Solaria also has a far greater population of robots than humans. There are something like two million robots in service for the entire Spacer population of 25,000. Needless to say the Solarians do very little with their lives and have robots at the beck and call providing them every service they could imagine even to the point of raising their children. As in The Caves of Steel robots play a very important part in the three crimes committed in the book.

Baley has his hands full dealing with Daneel who has not made it known to the Solarians that he is a robot. This at first bothers Baley but he soon realizes this was a ploy by the Outer World authorities and he begins to realize this will be to their advantage. Still, the human disguise does not often work very well as Daneel's speech pattern is too stilted and emotionless. Baley fears his cover may be blown ruining their plan. There is also the problem of Daneel's far too logical programming:
Logic was logic and robots had nothing else. Logic told Daneel he was completely stymied. Reason might have told him that all factors are rarely predictable, that the opposition might make a mistake.
None of that. A robot is logical, only, not reasonable. 
The book is amazingly prescient in what it has to say about dependence on machines, living a life of pleasure for pleasure's sake, the importance of face to face contact in sustaining a healthy civilization and numerous scientific advances that seem mundane to us in the 21st century. All that needs to be done is to substitute the robots in Asimov's book for the electronic gadgetry of our modern times and you can immediately see how the lives of the Solarians are not much different from our own.

Increasingly people seem to be disappearing into a virtual world of Facebook, iPhones, iPods, laptops, eBook readers.  If a Solarian were to visit Earth now it might appear that most Earthers prefer "viewing" to "seeing." I often hear from some of my more addicted gadget loving friends that to contemplate living without electronic devices is anathema to them.  Although we haven't yet utterly shunned human interaction I would venture to guess we are not far from becoming Solarians. Even Asimov's talk about genetic experimentation in the way Solarians decide who should marry and procreate is not at all different from in-vitro and other extracorporeal means of creating children.

Read as an entertaining detective story with a sci-fi angle The Naked Sun is comparable to anything by the Grand Masters of mysterydom. As an eerie forecast of what a man living in the 1950s imagined of "life in the future" it is a sobering account for any 21st century reader.


  1. This is one of my favorites by Asimov. I love his straight science fiction and his mysteries too. But this is such a good one.

  2. As someone whose knowledge of SF stops at Douglas Adams' Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy and SeaQuest DSV, I really enjoyed reading Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun, in which he proved that the advent of technology does not negate clever plots.

    But I'm less than enthusiastic about The Robots of Dawn and Robots and Empire, in which the detective elements were phased out in favor of social commentary and SF elements.

    By the way, I have to nitpick you on two points (slightly off-topic): you recently discussed writers like Fearn and Cunningham, but for FFB you pick a fairly well-known book by SF-legend Isaac Asimov, which, by the way, is still in print, and don't most of the books reviewed on this blog constitute as a FFB?


  3. I never was a big reader of science fiction books, though I always enjoyed sci-fi movies. Go figure. But this sounds like something I might like. I've recently heard a bit of gossip about Asimov that makes me think I'd have slapped his face if we'd ever come into 'contact' years ago. HA!

    I do enjoy reading today's 'magical realism' novels - I think that's what they're called. Writers like China Mieville, I mean. And I've found that I like the fantasy novels of Naomi Novik and Lynn Flewelling. Tastes change, I suppose. :)

  4. TomKat -

    Forgive the lapse. But as you can see from Yvette's comment (and she's a well read woman1) this is the reason I'll write about books that I think are wellwroth seeking out. Regardless of whether or not the book is still in print.

    Whew! Now I don't have to post my lecture defending myself on why I can write about legends still in print even though this blog is *supposed* to be about forgotten books and neglected writers. Thanks for saving me, Yvette! ;^D

    Yvette -

    You can't dangle a tidbit like that in front of me and then teasingly whip it away. What on Earth did Asimov ever say? Was it a chauvinist remark?

  5. OK, I have to ask. Why spell my nickname with a K?

  6. Asimov could write SF and mysteries with equal aplomb. With CAVES OF STEEL and THE NAKED SUN he showed he could blend the two genres successfully.

  7. Utter embarrassement. Demonic possession can be the only explanation for the continual misspelling. The K will be immediately replaced with the proper C from now on, TomCat. There I did right for the first time in three months.

  8. THE CAVES OF STEEL, John, fwiw...and Asimov was a groper, thinking himself funny about it.

    I really hate the neologism "sci-fi"...sf, science fiction, speculative fiction, but never skiffy. China Mieville writes a little sf, but mostly contents himself with fantasy.

    There were better "amphibians" between cf and sf, but relatively few of them wrote too many sfnal mysteries...Anthony Boucher, Avram Davidson, Fredric Brown, Kate Wilhelm (she is a notable exception there, with such "mixed" work as DEATH QUALIFIED and CITY OF CAIN). Those who did mix a lot, such as Richard Condon, and for that matter Edward Hoch on occasion, were often able to come up with something of comparable interest.

  9. So, do you prefer the John Thunstone stories of Manly Wade Wellman even to the John the Balladeer stories?

  10. Todd -

    My copy of Caves of Steel doesn't have THE in the title. Really. Oh well. When I get home I'll look at the title page. Maybe it's one of those artist's errors on the cover only.

    Takes me forever to catch on to the preferred terminology. I'm first and foremost a crime fiction reader and that certainly has a lot to do with my lack of knowledge in other genres. But I'm terminally colloquial and I'm sure my writing shows that. I'll never be a legimitate critic. I not "serious" enough. Plus in everyday speech I still use words like "nifty" and "swell" -- more often than not with tongue in cheek. So I'm probably too anachronistic AND too flippant for literary criticism.

    I'll try to start using SF from now on. Is that why the cable TV channel now labels itself Scy-Fy instead of its original Sci-Fi. I always wondered about that.

    I have many of those Wellman collections from Night Shade Books but have yet to read the John the Balladeer stories. I liked The Old Gods Waken - I think that was maybe John the Balladeer, now that I mull it over. Silver John and John the Balladeer were the same character, yes? It takes some doing these days for me to recall books and characters that aren't my absolute favorites. I like Wellman, but he's not my first choice when I turn to weird or mystery fiction.

  11. Todd (part 2) -

    I just finished The City and the City last night. The first China Mieville book I've read. I liked most of it, but I think he spent more time on reiteration than on telling a story. He may cite Chandler as an influence but there was nothing remotely Chandleresque about the story at all. I kept getting Philip K. Dick all over the place (minus the drugs). Seemed about 150 pages too long. Could've been a great novella. Far more suspenseful if told more compactly. Very quirky prose style - took some getting used to. There's my taste in old-fashioned writing showing again.

  12. They opted for "SyFy" because they couldn't trademark "Sci-Fi"..."Syfy" reportedly slang for syphilis in one of the Eastern European languages, but that's probably just wistful joking.

    THE OLD GODS WAKEN was indeed the first of the John the Balladeer/Silver John revival novels...all nicely brief. But the short fiction was better.

    My copy of THE CAVES OF STEEL was one inherited from my father, in this SF Book Club omnibus, goofy sculpture and all.