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The Naked Sun by Isaac AsimovUK edition3.5 stars
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Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsWhile it may not be the naked masterpiece The Caves of Steel was, The Naked Sun is an absorbing and fun little murder mystery whose mildly dated and sometimes far-fetched elements don’t hamper its readability, decades on, in any but the most trivial ways. This time, Elijah Baley is summoned to distant Solaria to help solve the grisly murder of one of its most prominent citizens. Right away there’s much that’s odd about this. Hostilities between Earthmen and Spacers, as Earthmen refer to all colonists, are as pronounced as ever. With Earthmen clustered like moles in their claustrophobic underground cities, Spacers control all the galaxy. And Solaria in particular, as the top robot manufacturing world of them all, is perhaps the economic superpower among all inhabited space. 

Del Rey edition with Michael Whelan coverThe very fact Solaria would ask the help of an Earth detective reveals the depth of their perplexity. It is the first murder in Solaria’s history. Founded as a resort world, Solaria has grown into a paragon of isolationism. With strict birth control laws limiting the world’s population to 20,000, the Solarians live in vast individual estates served by literal armies of robots. They have eliminated the need and the desire for personal contact between themselves, limiting such contact to holographic projections only. The very thought of sharing a room with another human being fills most of them with dread and revulsion. This is, of course, presented in sharp contrast to the teeming populations of Earth, clustered together in their caves of steel. Asimov also emphasizes Baley’s agoraphobia, the result of his cultural conditioning in direct opposition to that of the Solarians.

If this all seems a bit over the top where plausibility is concerned, it’s easier to swallow when you consider the satirical edge Asimov is employing here. In the 1950s, the “pushbutton age” was as exciting as it was nerve-wracking. Automation and technology were thrilling, in their way, but behind it all was the lurking fear of automation supplanting human beings, taking away jobs (not unreasonable fears, given how reality is shaping up in the 21st century), doing strange and unforeseen things to both the social and economic landscape of America. Solaria is Asimov’s depiction of technophobia’s worst fears realized, a world of such automated utopian “perfection” that the humanity has even been stripped from its human inhabitants. The people of Solaria seem scarcely less robotic than their robots. That the Solarians even find it difficult to say words like “children” or “love” might understandably be derided as Asimov overplaying his hand. But I think he was certainly trying to tap into some of the anxieties surrounding science and technology that were operative at the time. 

1972 edition with Dean Ellis coverNo one, however, could accuse Isaac Asimov of being a Luddite, and even on Solaria human passions can’t be entirely suppressed. Baley, accompanied once again by his former robot partner Daneel Olivaw, attempt to unravel the bizarre mystery, the very commission of which seems impossible. No murder weapon can be found, and on a world in which even married couples — who are “assigned” to one another for the purposes of procreation, which I don’t need to say doesn't involve actual sex — try to avoid personal contact as much as possible, the very fact that someone could have gotten to the victim to murder him pushes the bounds of possibility. And of course, with those famous Three Laws shackling their charming positronic brains, it’s beyond the pale to think a robot could have done it. Or could one...?

As a whodunnit, I found the plot enjoyable, with the right amount of nifty twists and surprises you want to see in all the right places. On the other hand, Asimov follows mystery genre formula a bit too closely. As with every Hercule Poirot novel Agatha Christie ever wrote, in The Naked Sun Asimov has the narrative follow a well-trodden path in which Baley meets with all of the potential suspects (his insistence upon what today we call face-time, prompting sheer horror from most everyone, provides much of the novel’s humor), and then, at the climax, calls them all together for his big monologue in which All Is Revealed. Maybe this was still fresh in 1957, but we’ve seen this trope played out this way so many times (cripes, the book sometimes felt like an SFnal episode of Columbo) that I could not, in the end, consider The Naked Sun one of the Good Doctor’s greats.

But it is good entertainment, if you like mysteries in which deceptively simple acts conceal broader agendas. And in its best scenes, Asimov shows a gift for real warmth in his handling of character that would prove inspirational to a whole generation of SF writers, who would come to realize that SF could be about real people, regardless of its fantastic settings, and not just Buck Rogers pulp archetypes. Perhaps the book’s themes about What Makes Us Human seem, today, to be a little obvious if not altogther hokey. But taken with an understanding of the age in which The Naked Sun was written, the cumulative effect reveals Asimov as the forward thinker and humanist he was in his heyday.