In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle enjoys Asimov’s second Robot novel which eerily prefigures our world
On the planet of Solaria, people don’t ‘see’ each other: ‘seeing’ is viewed as abnormal, even dirty, because it means coming into contact with other people’s breath, germs, and sweaty bodies. Instead, Solarians ‘view’ each other via screens, being in different buildings – or even different rooms in the same building – when they converse with each other. Inhabitants of Solaria quite literally cannot bear to be in the same room as each other, even their own spouses or children.
In Isaac Asimov’s The Naked Sun, social distancing – as we would now call it – is not just a useful ‘othering’ device to underscore the difference between Earth and another planet: it is an integral part of the novel’s plot. First published in 1957, The Naked Sun is the second of Asimov’s four ‘Robot’ novels, following The Caves of Steel three years earlier. Asimov essentially gave up writing fiction in favour of non-fiction (which he acknowledged he much preferred writing) in 1958, the year after The Naked Sun appeared, with only a handful of works – including the Hugo- and Nebula-winning 1972 novel The Gods Themselves – being published over the next 24 years. In 1982, Asimov was persuaded to return to fiction, and added more novels to his best-known series, Foundation (which uses something akin to what we’d now call mathematical computer modelling to predict human behaviour on a mass scale), as well as two more Robot novels, The Robots of Dawn (1983) and Robots and Empire (1985).
I read The Caves of Steel perhaps twenty years ago, when I first discovered Asimov’s work and devoured all of the Foundation novels plus quite a few of his short stories. But it took me until 2021 and lockdown to pick up the sequel, The Naked Sun, which sees American detective or ‘Plainclothesman’ Elijah Baley reunited with his robot sidekick from the planet Aurora, R. Daneel Olivaw (the ‘R.’ stands for ‘Robot’).
I’m not sure why it took me so long to get round to reading The Naked Sun when I had enjoyed the first novel so much. As critics noted, Asimov essentially invented a new hybrid genre, the detective SF novel, with The Caves of Steel. But when I began to see The Naked Sun mentioned as a forerunner to our current world of video-calls and social distancing, I thought there was never going to be a better time to read it. And I’m glad I did.
In many ways, Asimov’s novel follows on from the themes and ideas of E. M. Forster’s prescient 1909 short story ‘The Machine Stops’, which I have analysed here. The world of Solaria – the main setting for The Naked Sun – is not anything like Forster’s imagined future Earth in terms of layout, but Earth is: in Asimov’s future world, ‘Earthmen’ have taken to living below the Earth’s surface in the ‘caves of steel’ which gave the first novel its title. Earthmen like Baley go in fear of air travel (much like the female protagonist of Forster’s story) and going up to the surface of the world.
But when Baley is told he has been summoned to investigate a murder that has taken place on another planet, Solaria, he finds himself among a world whose inhabitants are like Forster’s future Earth-dwellers: people who go in fear of coming into physical contact with other human beings, with all communication being carried out by video-conferencing software (as we’d now call it). It’s an idea that J. G. Ballard would later build on and take even further, where in his 1977 story ‘The Intensive Care Unit’ the narrator has done everything remotely since birth: even get married and have children, without ever once having been in the same room as his wife.
Solaria has a population of just 20,000, but it has 200 million robots, which perform all of the labour. Humans live on vast estates, miles away from each other, and have no need to engage in menial labour, thanks to their robot helpers. There is no police force, because there is no crime – until the murder of a prominent fetologist, Dr Delmarre, the event which causes our detective protagonist to have to brave the ‘naked sun’ of Solaria to investigate this rare crime.
No crime, no manual labour, lots of space to live in. Sound like paradise? Asimov punctures this utopia by showing the cost it brings: population is strictly controlled, so couples are ‘assigned’ children rather than simply deciding they want to have a baby together. Solarians go in terror of each other, with face-to-face socialising strictly prohibited. Even couples are content to ‘view’ each other most of the time, rather than ‘see’ each other.
When Baley arrives on Solaria, he finds that the widow of the murdered doctor, a woman named Gladia, is more than happy to appear on screen completely naked when ‘viewing’ him: it’s only when they’re in the same room that Solarians become shy around each other, to the point of neurosis. In the course of his investigation, Baley does persuade Gladia to ‘see’ him in person, with the distance between them literally narrowing, but other Solarians are far less open to the idea. A lifetime – indeed, whole culture over centuries – of social distancing has led to human contact becoming not just verboten but unthinkable within each Solarian’s mind.
This terror of physical contact is important to The Naked Sun because it makes it highly unlikely – even impossible – that anyone could have murdered Delmarre, because they couldn’t even ‘see’ him. They couldn’t bear to get close enough. So how was he killed? And what’s happened to the murder weapon that was used? Asimov shows himself at his strongest in this novel, perhaps of all his novels, when it comes to plotting. We have a delicious paradox akin to the traditional locked-room mystery: the one person who could have killed Delmarre is his wife, but she couldn’t have done it either. Intrigued? I was.
Baley will need to enlist the help of Daneel Olivaw as his trusty robot sidekick (without telling anyone on Solaria that his human-looking friend is, in fact, all wires and metal underneath that realistic flesh), but even this presents a series of problems over the course of the novel. Asimov’s ‘Three Laws of Robotics’ (there are actually four, technically, since a ‘Zeroth Law’ was added later) state that a robot cannot harm a human being or, through inaction, allow a human to come to harm. (Robotics is a word Asimov introduced into the language.) This means that, for instance, when Daneel senses that Baley would come to harm if he left the house, the robot actively prevents Baley from leaving. Asimov paces the story just right, keeping the action moving while still allowing for plenty of thoughtful conversation scenes between characters (something of an Asimov trademark).
I have fond memories of reading the original Foundation trilogy as well as The Caves of Steel, but I think The Naked Sun is my new favourite Asimov novel. I’d recommend it to fans of detective fiction, fans of science fiction, and to anyone who is fascinated to learn how a writer managed, over half a century ago, to prefigure our current world of social distancing and ‘viewing’ over seeing.
Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books, and The Tesserae, a long poem about the events of 2020.