Author: Isaac Asimov
Type: Fiction, novel
Part of series: Robot (#2)
I read it: August 2018
After the events from The Caves of Steel, the setup for The Naked Sun has the basic serial elements required to continue the regular installments: the reluctant duo of Elijah Baley (human) and R. Daneel Olivaw (robot), and a murder case to solve. But the setting is switched, with Elijah quickly moved from his home planet where everyone lives in those vast caves of steel to the planet of Solaria, where the locals are accustomed to wide open spaces. This is one of the culture shocks for Baley to face: the naked sun hanging in a vast sky. Walking outside takes tremendous effort, what with “the grass soft and loathsome under his shoes, disgusting in its softness (like walking through corrupting flesh, and he nearly retched at the thought).” You can feel Asimov’s glee as he forces the reader to confront what these vast shifts in lifestyle would do to a person.
There’s an even bigger cultural difference: the natives don’t interact with each other in person. The residents of Solaria are few in number and wealthy because an underclass of robots does all the work. Over time the humans have grown accustomed to living completely alone, and although they don’t find the grass underfoot disgusting, they do think it’s abominable to be in the presence of another person. Their way around this is to “view” each other, which consists of video conferencing so high-tech that entire rooms can be presented so that it looks like the other person is right there, just yards away. They contrast “viewing” with “seeing,” which means confronting a person the old-fashioned bodily way. This is of course the method that Baley presses them to let him use, considering he has to interview people to solve a murder and all
The central mystery of the plot is mildly interesting, but as it goes with Asimov, is simply a structure around which he can hang his thought experiments and miniature lessons in untangling a problem. When someone states that “there is only one person that can possibly have done the deed,” Baley is quick to correct: “Are you sure you don’t mean only one person who is likely to have done the deed?” The detective “had no liking for the armchair deducer who discovered certainty rather than probability in the workings of logic.” Of course, by this point armchair deducers is exactly what we are, trying to keep up with the quick barrage of information and twists from the author. I suppose it’s possible to find Asimov off-putting in this way, if you interpret him to be saying “you haven’t thought this through, reader!” but I like to picture him as more of a jovial mutton-chopped instructor trying to make salient points in an interactive way.
As for logic, Baley decides that his robot companion can be “logical but not reasonable,” which is perhaps the “definition of a robot.” This is Asimov emphasizing the unique human traits of both victims and perpetrators, requiring a human detective to be on the scene. Baley even presses Olivaw to go after the coldest facts possible, if they exist. He reminds that “a chain of deduction is pretty, but it isn’t evidence.”
Olivaw (in that cool Jude Law guise) is always an interesting character, even if he seems a tad underused in this story. My favorite is when he delivers a paragraph in “stilted sentence structure” that Baley knows can be interpreted differently depending on one’s knowledge of what Olivaw really is: “To one who knew Daneel as a robot, it was all an attempt to do a job without giving offense to any human,” but “to one who thought Daneel was an Auroran, a native of the oldest and most powerful militarily of the Outer Worlds, it sounded like a series of subtly curious threats.” Once again, the reason why there are some jobs that the robots won’t be able to take from us for quite a while: it takes a human to get inside the head of a human and imagine the way in which that other person is interpreting the subtext of spoken information.
Finally, I was on the lookout for the most intriguing bit of technology used. A great example popped out involving messages sent on strips of paper. At first glance this was amusing because Asimov never seems to get past the paper and pen mentality, so characters reading things on little strips seems quaint (and anachronistic to the scene). However, because these messages are highly sensitive, they are delivered inside small capsules. The capsules are designed to open at the touch of the recipients’ fingerprints. This slammed the scene right back into the present: I got my first iPhone only two months ago, and admit that I was impressed by the fingerprint system of unlocking the device. Perhaps the strips of paper don’t seem outdated when hidden inside such a futuristic device. If anything, these scenes may have more in common with steampunk or post-apocalyptic stories than I’d previously considered. We are destined for futures that have a strange mishmash of low- and high-tech objects.
Time will tell whether we end up enclosing ourselves fully in our buildings, or remain standing under that huge and naked sun.