Friday, January 24, 2014

The Naked Sun: Isaac Asimov

The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov is a cross-genre book with an interesting whodunit and an intriguing picture of two dystopian societies. It paints a picture of the possible ills of isolationism, automation, and the proliferation of technology.

From the back of my book:
A millennium into the future, two advancements have altered the course of human history:  the colonization of the Galaxy and the creation of the positronic brain. 

On the beautiful Outer World planet of Solaria, a handful of human colonists lead a hermit-like existence, their every need attended to by their faithful robot servants.  To this strange and provocative planet comes Detective Elijah Baley, sent from the streets of New York with his positronic partner, the robot R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve an incredible murder that has rocked Solaria to its foundations.
Isaac Asimov was in part inspired to start the series of novels that feature Elijah and Daneel by conversations with John Campbell, editor of Astounding Science Fiction. This excerpt is from the Introduction to The Naked Sun, titled "The Story Behind the Robot Novels."
Campbell had often said that a science-fiction mystery story was a contradiction in terms; that advances in technology could be used to get detectives out of their difficulties unfairly, and that the readers would therefore be cheated.
Asimov set out to prove him wrong with The Caves of Steel (my review here), published in 1954. The Naked Sun followed in 1957. Both books were serialized in magazines first.

I found The Naked Sun especially interesting because Elijah is out of his element on the planet of Solaria. Not only is he on a different planet, but the culture and the development of this planet are very different from the direction that humans on earth have taken. He and the people of Solaria have very little in common and many of the people he needs to interview have contempt for the people of earth and for him.

In the future that Asimov has depicted, the people of earth have protected themselves in huge domes and never (or rarely) experience wide open spaces or the outdoors or even elements of nature.  They have developed a fear of being exposed to these experiences. The humans who have settled on other planets in the galaxy are referred to as Spacers, and each group has developed in different ways. The Solarians seclude themselves from other human contact. Even husbands and wives meet face to face only at appointed times. Humans usually meet with each other by "viewing", which sounds something like a sophisticated type of holographic projection. They can play games or eat a meal together, but not be in the same room physically.

The Solarians consider the society that has developed to be near perfect, and have a small population whose every need is met by specialized robots. Thus they don't even have a police force to deal with crime. Elijah is assigned to this case at the request of a Solarian, but comes into the situation with very little knowledge, and gets little cooperation from the Solarians in his investigation. Robot Daneel, again assigned as his partner, does understand much more about the culture of Solaria, but he is from a very influential planet, Aurora, and does not share all of his knowledge with Elijah. The investigation of the crime is thus very different and challenging for Elijah.

I enjoyed this book a lot. I recommend it highly. The way this book is written, the reader can come into it without knowledge of the first book (I had forgotten a lot about that book myself). The next book in the series, The Robots of Dawn, was not published until 1983. I will be getting that one sometime to follow up on Elijah and Daneel.

John at Pretty Sinister Books wrote an excellent evaluation of this book in this post, which includes some lovely book covers.

20 comments:

  1. I like the sound of this a lot. Will see if I can track it down.

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    1. Cath, I hope you give it a try. I liked the subject matter and also the way Asimov tells a story.

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  2. Tracy, this does sound like a good story. Although I enjoy reading sf, I often find it a little hard to understand which, of course, depends on the writer.

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    1. Prashant, it is a very good story, contrasting two worlds unlike our own. Until I started reading sci fi again in the last year, I had not realized how much the stories (often) explore dilemmas of our time.

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  3. Tracy - Thanks for giving us the background on this series. It's an excellent series and like you, I recommend it. I do like the Lije Baley character very much, and Asimov was good at setting up solid mysteries.

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    1. Margot, I like this series so far too. And I want to reread Murder at the ABA sometime also (not sci fi of course).

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  4. Tracy: I do not think I have read a mystery that is also science fiction. You have piqued my interest but it will be awhile after all the books I acquired at Christmas.

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    1. Bill, there are more mixed sci fi / mystery novels than I knew of, but I see even more that blend fantasy and mystery. Sometimes those work for me, sometimes not.

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  5. Thanks for the link to my review, Tracy. I really enjoyed this book. I think I liked this one even more than The Caves of Steel. So much of The Naked Sun is resonant with our modern times. Asimov really was a visionary. Had he been born in ancient times he might've been the quintessential oracle.

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    1. John, Asimov was amazing and I want to read more of his sci fi books too. I was surprised that this one was so different from the first one in the series. I really liked your review.

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  6. Nice review, but not something I'll be reading TBH.

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    1. Thanks, Col, I don't really think it is your kind of book.

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  7. You do make this one sound intriguing, even for a non-SF person like myself. Maybe one day....

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    1. Moira, even though this is definitely sci fi, the emphasis for me is really on the mystery and the ideas. Elijah is a very determined investigator, and won't give up no matter the discomfort he goes through and the efforts of the Solarians to get rid of him.

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  8. This is a writer I'd like to read more of in the future. I read one of his short stories with my students recently and really enjoyed it. There was plenty of material for discussion which is always a good sign.

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    1. Sarah, all of the books I have read by Asimov recently have made me think, so I find him well worth reading. He was very prolific. He even did an Annotated Gilbert and Sullivan, which my husband would dearly love to have.

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  9. Terrific review TracyK - after reading CAVES OF STEEL I really have to re-read this now - thanks chum.

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    1. Thanks, Sergio. I can't decide which I like better, this one or Caves of Steel. They are both great.

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  10. I don't read many older books any more, but in high school I did a lot of reading my dad's old sci fi books. I haven't gotten to this one, but loved The Foundation Trilogy and would like to get I, Robot. This book sounds like it would be great too :)

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    1. Katie, I can't remember if I ever read the Foundation Trilogy. Regardless, I hope to get to them sometime. I do like Asimov's writing style.

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