Asimov’s Centennial: The Naked Sun

The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov
Hardcover: Doubleday, $2.95, 187pp, 1957

The Naked Sun is a sequel to The Caves of Steel and, like it, features a heavily populated Earth with few and despised robots in a sort of ghetto within the fifty lightly populated and heavily robotic Spacer Worlds after Earth had founded the core of them in an earlier age. On one of these worlds, Solaria, a man has been murdered for the first time in the world’s 300-year history. Solaria’s Head of Security, Hannis Gruer, has heard of Elijah Baley’s work and, though an Earthman has never set foot on an independent Spacer world, he is convinced the Earther’s unique experiences and talents will be helpful and contacts Aurora about getting in touch with Baley. The Aurorans agree to make this happen with the price being that one of their agents will accompany Baley. Baley is informed of part of this when he leaves the comforting enclosure of his City to undergo the ordeal of flying to another to meet with Undersecretary Albert Minnim in Washington. He is not pleased to have done this only to find that he must undergo the far more difficult ordeal of spaceflight to another world. Minnim orders Baley to go, overtly as a detective and covertly as a spy, because the conflicts between Earth and the Spacer Worlds are growing sharper and Earth’s sociologists predict Earth will be “virtually wiped out as a populated world” in such a conflict. Earth needs to know better what it’s up against.

After arriving on Solaria, he meets the Auroran agent who is none other than R. Daneel Olivaw, who is himself traveling covertly in the sense of not revealing to any Solarian that he is, in fact, a robot. In the car that is taking Baley to his headquarters for the case, the two get into an argument about Baley’s safety in relation to his agoraphobia but Baley is determined to confront his fears, tricks Olivaw, and gets the robot driver of the car to put back the roof. It doesn’t go well, especially as Baley, having left his cave of steel, stares “at the naked sun,” but Baley will continue working to overcome his phobia (while the physical reality of the sun will take on a changed symbolic import). Once at his home base, he experiences the culture shock of a gigantic mansion all to himself and Olivaw (except for the many, many generally unobtrusive robots), and embarks on the first of what is essentially two series of interviews. He experiences his second shock when, at the end of his first meeting with Gruer, Gruer disappears. He learns that, while Spacers generally have a phobia about contact with dirty Earthers, Solarians have a phobia about any contact at all and will generally only “view” one another with a complicated system of telepresence. It turns out that, while Spacer worlds like Aurora have small populations and fifty robots per human, Solaria has a rigidly controlled population of 20,000 on a hospitable world 9,500 miles in diameter and has 10,000 robots for every human. They live on vast estates and their point of pride about not needing to see their neighbors has turned into a rigid social and psychological extreme of isolation. Marriages are based on gene matches and people “see” one another only for necessities such as certain doctor visits and the rare and unpleasant necessity of replacing a death. In fact, they are working on artificial insemination to make this completely unnecessary and to further perfect their gene screening. This all plays into part of why the murder is so inexplicable. Rikaine Delmarre is a “good Solarian” who has volunteered for the socially necessary but unpleasant work of “fetologist,” or one who works on the baby farms. That he is found to have been bludgeoned to death is inexplicable. Why would one rich isolated Solarian want to kill another and how could they in this way without personal contact? The only suspect is Rikaine’s wife, Gladia (pronounced Gla-DEE-a) and she is a small woman who found the body and collapsed in shock. Other than her, robots such as one rendered non-functional by seeing a human death, and the doctor who arrived on the scene, no one was or has been there and no murder weapon was found. Any more subtle evidence that would have been there has been destroyed as the robots of this crime-free world cleaned up the murder scene as they would any untidiness. Baley at one point notes that, “This is a rather peculiar case. No motive, no means, no witnesses, no evidence.”

In the first sequence of interviews, Baley “views” Gladia and other relevant parties after viewing Gruer. From this, he decides that the lack of weapon and Gladia’s lack of strength clears her though, given the lack of any other options, all Solaria is convinced she’s guilty. [1] He also learns that there is strife between Aurora and Solaria and Gruer had actually wanted an Earth sociologist (or what’s nearly the same, a detective) because of Earth’s greater understanding of humans. Aurora is the most powerful Spacer world but Solaria’s contribution to the Worlds’ robot economy is essential. There is also conflict within Solaria, between those who like things basically as they are and those who would push even further. According to Gruer, there is a conspiracy at work which, in what precise way he isn’t sure, threatens all humanity. While saying this, as if on cue, he drinks from his glass and collapses from poison.

Baley feels stymied in his remote investigations and, when Gruer’s replacement, Attlebish, turns out to be an ass who punches Baley’s buttons, Baley uses a pretense of connection to Aurora’s power to threaten him into concessions which will allow Baley to move about the planet and “see” people if he can get them to agree. Because Gruer has been poisoned for investigating this case and because “seeing” would put Baley in direct danger from a similar attempt, Olivaw is required by the First Law to prevent Baley from going. Again, Baley tricks Olivaw, this time into revealing that he is a robot to the other household robots and orders them to guard Olivaw. Feeling euphoric over his victories over a Spacer human and robot, Baley heads out on his second series of interviews, again confronts his fear of the open and, again, it doesn’t go very well. However, he does manage to meet with Solaria’s version of a sociologist, Quemot, in which we learn that Quemot can barely stand to “see” another and eventually flees back to viewing. Meanwhile, we also learn about Solaria’s history, its relation to Earth’s Sparta and Athens, its Traditionalists, and Solaria’s great weapon: the positronic robot. It is Quemot’s contention that society is pyramidal and now robots can form its base while humanity occupies its apex. Further, a robotic economy is unidirectional, always pushing towards more robots and, without lifting a finger, Solaria will witness the galaxy adopting Solaria’s social structure. More directly to the nitty-gritty of the case, he also informs Baley that Delmarre had an assistant fetologist. Going to interview her, he learns about the biological basis of Solaria and that he should next talk to Delmarre’s friend who is a roboticist who can stand physical proximity even less than Quemot. Before leaving the farm, Olivaw is proved correct when an attempt is made on Baley’s life. On Baley’s meeting with the roboticist, the mystery begins to move into the home stretch but there is one more fascinating chapter I can talk about when Baley first “sees” Gladia (another in Asimov’s line of memorable female characters) and learns about her abstract light art (another in Asimov’s line of fascinating future arts). She does a “portrait” of him which is flattering but for it being contained within a gray box, “holding Baley’s imprisoned soul fast in the gray of the Cities.” Not to be hypocritical about forcing Solarians to “see” him, he once more forces himself to face the outdoors in an attempted exchange to get Gladia to remove the box from her art. The chapter ends with a remarkably vivid sunset which affects Baley even more than the reader and, with just another step or two, gets us to the moment when Baley can put the case together and even package it for proper consumption by several parties.

While The Naked Sun has a completely separate case, explains its own milieu well enough, and can be read alone, I’d still recommend reading The Caves of Steel first because I feel like a deeper knowledge of what Earth is like would produce a better understanding of Baley’s character. And, obviously, because I also think The Caves of Steel was a great book. In some ways, while definitely not perfect [2], this is even better. Like Caves, it works on the level of a personal murder mystery and on the level of a social science fiction novel. This inverts Caves, however, in showing us an extreme Spacer society while still never losing sight of Earth. In fact, the book is full of comparisons and contrasts. Frequent reference is made to the notion that robots are logical but not reasonable which, I think, ties into elements of many other Asimov stories where logic is respected but it’s pointed out that an impeccable chain of abstract logic can be unreasonable (or at least inaccurate) when applied to concrete situations. Another is between instincts and education where the Solarians could be said to “view-train” their children to educate the gregariousness, which they find disgusting, out of them. One thing I found particularly interesting about this element was how it relates to our current “social networking” system of Skyping and Zooming (leaving aside how it’s now exacerbated by the plague) which is nothing but a primitive form of “viewing.” (He also mentions how youth is necessary for beneficial change but specifies that the change should be moderate.) And Asimov, through Baley, again returns to the recurrent concern over “blind alleys” (here called a “dead end” at one point, which is the same principle) as Earth’s clustering and Solaria’s isolation are both seen as unhealthy extremes. Indeed, while he heads in the right direction but overshoots the mark in a couple of extreme moments of psychological pressure on the roboticist and on Baley, himself, the psychological and sociological depictions are superb, especially in the scene in which Quemot struggles with reason vs. emotion (another contrasting pair) and tries to explain to Baley the difficulty with “seeing” him. Through it all, Baley never spares himself in his effort to be an exemplar and undergo some of what he puts on others as he tries to get over his dependence on the security blanket of the Cities. Though it’s in a different context, he even cites a principle that will become important in much later Robot novels when he says to Olivaw, “It’s as much my job to prevent harm to mankind as a whole as yours is to prevent harm to man as an individual.”

This is a short novel which is so efficiently executed and packed to bursting with ideas that it contains just as many events as a novel twice as long and more ideas than most novels that are several times as long without feeling rushed or thin. I wish I could achieve Asimov’s efficiency and ability to provoke thought rather than producing this verbose review which still fails to convey how exciting and deeply-textured this experience of an alien world and society is but I can say that I recommend it highly.


[1] I probably hadn’t yet seen A Shot in the Dark (1964) the last time I read this but, the whole time I was reading it this time, with Baley’s obvious awareness of Gladia’s attractiveness and his frequent decisions on her innocence despite all evidence being against her, I kept thinking, “Maria Gambrelli is innocent!” By the way, an isolated moment which struck me funny was when Baley is told he must go to Solaria and, for a moment, he tries to place it – “Solaria, Australia?” – before he grasps that he’s being ordered off-world. Another amusing moment, which may be referencing Asimov’s annoyance about editorial interference in The Stars, Like Dust, is when Quemot and Baley are discussing the notion of the “pursuit of happiness” and when Quemot wonders where the phrase is from, Baley says, “Some old document.” Another reference comes when Baley, apparently oblivious to its antecedents, says that when you have “eliminated the impossible, what remains, however improbable, is the truth.”

[2] Non-nitpicky readers should probably skip this entire footnote as it would just rain on the parade of enjoying this excellent novel, but one of the things that bothered me involved communications. Asimov seems to generally assume a lack of direct interstellar communications which is strange given that there is hyperspace and, though it’s not precisely in the same universe, Lucky Starr was just involved in a project regarding the properties of light in hyperspace (so what about radio waves?). If there were such communications, why would a Solarian even think that an Earther would need to “see” Solaria? If there are not, how do Solaria’s planetary communications (“viewing”) work with no lag at all?

While those are technical questions and easily explained or excused, there are more serious issues involving the robots of Solaria having a sort of omniscience at times and an almost total lack of awareness at others and this inconsistency is not restricted to them. Olivaw is creatively hyper-vigilant about not allowing harm to come to Baley yet, in a key scene, violates both the First and Second Laws, somehow disobeying an order (though it was psychologically more of a plea) and inadvertently causing harm to a human when he should have known better.

More than that, the perpetrator is convicted by the perpetrator’s own prior utterance. Baley attempts, in passing, to provide a psychological explanation for why the perpetrator was so dumb in this instance and it’s plausible but only barely. Also, I don’t really like who the perpetrator is or the punishment. (I’m being somewhat misleading here to avoid spoilers but it gets my points across.)

Finally, perhaps from a youthful sentimentality or from focusing on elements of The Caves of Steel (or maybe even The Robots of Dawn) more strongly than elements of this one, I remembered Baley and Olivaw’s relationship and attitude towards each other (especially Baley’s towards Olivaw) differently and didn’t really like aspects of the relationship in this book, though that’s more personal taste than a flaw (as is the second half of the previous paragraph).

None of these things significantly impair an extremely clever and multi-level novel that works perfectly otherwise, but they did make me scratch my head on occasion.

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