Our journey down the Asimovian outlined of a future takes a second bus perfected stop at “The Naked Sun”, the second book of the Robot Series portion of the Robots/Foundation/Empire saga. Having demonstrated that “Science Fiction Crime Drama” as a cross-genre is possible, Isaac Asimov set out to write (arguably) the best one ever- while simultaneously launching us from Earth into the depths of his growing cosmos.
As far as the Robots/Foundation/Empire series of books goes, I put forth the notion that “The Naked Sun” is the most formative- far more so than “I, Robot/The Complete Robot.” While “I, Robot” initiated Asimov’s future vision- as well as creating the Three Laws of Robotics- there is a tremendous amount of the future of the Asimovian Cosmos that is unknowingly developed in “The Naked Sun.”
Our dynamic duo from “The Caves of Steel” have returned. However, the nature of the case is far different. Elijah Baley, Earther and New York City Detective, is called upon by his government to engage in a mission no Earther could ever have expected- to travel to the Spacer world of Solaria for the purposes of resolving a murder. It is the hope of Earth’s Government that Elijah Baley, trained as he is, can manage to infiltrate and do some spying for Earth while there- although the reader need not follow this line, as once the initial scenes on Earth are completed, the “spy angle” is all but ignored to focus on a traditional mystery. While en route to the planet Solaria, Elijah is reunited with his former partner, humaniform R. Daneel Olivaw. Olivaw is sent by the planet Aurora to assist Daneel in resolving the murder. The need for the intervention is simple: Solarians have a very unique society nearly devoid of interpersonal contact, thus they have no need for homicide investigators, or really police officers of any type- aside from a “Department of Secuirty” which deals more with off-world threats. During his investigation, Elijah Baley not only resolves the impossible crime- a human killing a human on a world where humans are never in each other’s direct presence- but also uncovers a threat to the continued existence of Earth, as well as perhaps other inhabited planets. In the process, Elijah meets and becomes very close to a woman named Gladia Delmarre, the widow of the victim of the case. Following the resolution of the case, Gladia Delmarre leaves Aurora in the company of R. Daneel Olivaw and heads to the planet Aurora.
The plotline of “The Naked Sun” expertly established several dominoes which begin the sequence for the entirety of the series. The first domino is that Elijah Baley determines that the Three Laws of Robotics are not infallible. Firstly, they require a Robot to accept the word of a Human as factual unless they have specific belief to the contrary, and secondly, that a series of actions, each innocent on their own merit, can potentially be strung together with homicidal intent. This “bending” of the infallibility of the Laws, in R. Daneel Olivaw’s presence, will be critically important later in the series. The second domino is the meeting of Elijah Baley (an Earther who typifies Earthmen) and Gladia Delmarre (a Spacer Woman of incredible beauty) is so scandalous as to become a “hyper-wave film” shown on all 51 human inhabited planets- which sets up Baley in an important way later in the series. The third domino is the expatriation of Gladia Delmarre to Aurora, which allows her later involvement with secondary characters from “The Caves of Steel.” The fourth and final domino is, of course, R. Daneel Olivaw, who continues learning more and more of human strengths and weaknesses, and is directed unknowingly along the path that will see the fruition of the series.
As always, the premier humanist Asimov uses his futuristic setting to address concerns of the 1950’s era regarding the spread of technology. On one hand you have the overpopulated, overworked, rigidly controlled society of Earth, continuing in its near-Orwellian fashion. On the other, you have a world where the embrace of technology and the easing of life’s burdens through robotics has lead to a world where humans lack certain concepts of humanity- including any social interpersonal contact. “Children” and “Marriage” are seen as burdens, while the concept of “family” has been wholly removed form their existence. Even in this, Asimov demonstrates his mastery of storytelling, but using his Laws of Robotics not to demonstrate the capability or lack thereof of Robots, but rather to demonstrate the capability of Man. Much as Elijah is forced to adapt to a world so different from his own that he physically goes into shock, so the antagonist of the story, the murderer, must find methods of murder which allow him to act remotely and without trace through a series of murders. Additionally, Asimov touches of the nature of “taboo social concepts” and how they are points fixed within the mind, lacking any external validity. (Take, as example, the fact that since Solarians view each other remotely but never see each other in person, the idea of viewing a Solarian while naked is not seen as perverse- after all, with no chance of physical contact or interaction there is no risk- while the idea of even being in the same room as another Solarian for a purpose other than the necessary act of species progenation, let along making direct contact even through clothing, is seen as the height of perversion.) While “The Naked Sun” is nearly unique in Asimov’s longer works in that it does not have a specific “racial exploration” undertone often found, it does address the concept of the Spacers considering Baley to be “less human” than they, due to his weakness to illness and shorter lifespan. It is only after repeated demonstration of his mental skills that he is considered anything more than a sideshow attraction.
As a mystery novel, “The Naked Sun” surpasses “The Caves of Steel” in its ability to twist and turn through subplots and addition concealment murders. The third cross-genre component, the Spy element, is sadly lacking, but so long as the reader is willing to accept it as a necessity of setting and a story vehicle rather than an intent on inventing a “sci fi spy” genre, it does not detract from the story. Of particular interest to the reader should be Asimov’s ability to evolve his characters. Baley begins this novel a far different man than he began “The Caves of Steel,” and end even further along as well. Nearly equal in character development are both R. Daneel Olivaw and Gladia Delmarre. Their interactions create tangible growth in the characters, often a trademark of Asimov’s work. As a standalone SciFi Mystery, the book is superior to “The Caves of Steel” for reasons listed above. Again as with “The Caves of Steel,” the pacing of the dialog may be off for some readers. Those points aside the novel is a solid offering of Scifi, and builds the foundation, pun intentional, for a massive multi-novel, multi-arc series that is the final extrapolation of a fifty year chain of dominoes.
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