Wednesday, March 24, 2010

"The Naked Sun" by Isaac Asimov

The Naked Sun (1956) is our March selection in the ClassicScienceFiction reading group at Yahoo. It's the second novel in Isaac Asimov's Robot series, sequel to The Caves of Steel (1953). Both are detective stories, but the mysteries are far less interesting than the science fiction, to my mind.

It's been years since I've read The Caves of Steel, but I still remember it pretty well. Detective Elijah Baley must investigate the murder of a Spacer ambassador on Earth and is forced to work alongside a highly advanced humanoid robot called R. (for "robot") Daneel Olivaw.

The "Spacers" are members of thinly-populated colony worlds which have a monopoly on space travel and have become wealthy from their use of robots. They look down on the teeming masses of an overpopulated Earth, considering them little more than disease-carrying vermin. Earthmen have a huge inferiority complex, and so they, in turn, enjoy keeping robots on an even lower rung of society (they call every robot "boy," which had obvious implications in the 1950's).

Earth has strict rules against robots (which makes sense, given their population pressures). But they can't afford to anger the powerful Spacers, who insist on their robot, Daneel, being part of the investigation into this crime. Although it's a mystery, a detective story, the really interesting part is the portrait of a crowded Earth and the society which has developed as a result. Baley's difficulties working with a robot are made even worse because of the inferiority complex of Earth.

It's a little different in The Naked Sun. In the course of the previous book, Elijah Baley learned to work with the robot Daneel and also became more confident, recognizing his own advantages over robots (and by implication, over Spacers, to some extent). Several times in this sequel, Baley mentions that robots are logical, but not reasonable. (Among other things, that means that robots could be used to murder humans and even wage war, despite the Three Laws of Robotics.)

In this book, Baley must leave the Earth to investigate a crime on Solaria, the wealthiest and least populated of the Spacer worlds (least populated by humans, at least, since it's the richest in robots). Ostensibly, the investigation of a murder is the plot here, but the crime is the least interesting part of the story (and the denouement is not particularly plausible). Phobias, sociology, the culture of a very different world - all these are far more important and more interesting.

Baley has lived his whole life surrounded by other people, crowded into vast structures (the "caves of steel"). He's uncomfortable away from people and, like all Earth residents, he has a bad case of agoraphobia. The Solarians are just the reverse. They live individually - surrounded only by large numbers of robot servants - in vast estates, scattered across the planet. They do all their socializing by video, and they have phobias about meeting any other person face to face.

In a way, The Naked Sun seems more plausible today than when I first read it decades ago. With the Internet, it's easy to see a whole population talking, working, socializing online. Families tend to be small these days, and will likely get even smaller, if we ever get serious about limiting population growth. Well, I live alone myself, so maybe that's why I can easily accept this idea of single-person households, all communicating online. Heh, heh. But it's certainly plausible enough for a SF premise.

However, the Solarians still reproduce the old-fashioned way. True, they reproduce rarely, since they keep their population low and stable (and they don't raise - or even know - their own children). But this still didn't work for me, considering that they could barely stand to be in the same room with another person, even briefly. Test-tube babies developed in artificial wombs would have worked better. Or at least artificial insemination.

In fact, given the use of robots for everything else (including child-rearing), why didn't they use robots for this? A man could have sex with his robot, which would then, if procreation were required, transfer his sperm to another robot for the lady's pleasure. As I say, the Solarians used robots for everything else. Of course, this was the 1950's, and sex was pretty much nonexistent in science fiction back then.

Baley's struggle to overcome his own phobias, and to understand the phobias of the Solarians (which is crucial to the mystery), is a big part of the book. It's actually pretty easy to get robots to commit murder, as the next attempted murder demonstrates. (I think Asimov was reconsidering his Three Laws of Robotics.) But the initial crime is really implausible. I understand why the author thought he needed that particular method, but it didn't work for me.

In addition to solving the murder, Baley also has a secret assignment from his boss back on Earth. Given all the advantages of the Spacer worlds - their robots, their low populations, and their long lifespans - he's to discover if they have any weaknesses. Baley not only does so, he also identifies a danger to humans on Earth. And it's all based on sociology.

Classic science fiction, no matter how entertaining, often requires that you consider its age. The Time Machine by H.G. Wells, for example, was great science fiction for 1895, and I'd say it's still great. But you wouldn't rate it very highly if it were a modern SF novel. Well, there are fashions in fiction like everything else. The Naked Sun was great science fiction for 1956, and I'd have to say that it holds up quite well even today.

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