The Naked Sun, by Isaac Asimov
Isaac Asimov’s The Naked Sun is a novel of its time. It moves away from the Frankenstein Complex, removing the robot as a threat, replacing it with the robot as a pet. What’s left is the person and what mankind could become if it maintains control over its creations.
Plainclothesman Elijah Baley of Earth is the man under the microscope, as he leaves the enclosed safety of his cocooned planet to investigate a murder among the Spacers, Earth’s name for the humans who inhabit the planets of the solar system. A race of Spacers, specifically the Solarians, operate a robot economy, using an unknown number as slaves to carry out every possible task.
Baley is called in to investigate the murder of a prominent scientist on Solaria, with the Solarians lacking the experience to do it themselves. The Solarians are a symbol of what Asimov believes society could become if robots are used so heavily. A civilisation of just 20,000, each member lives for hundreds of years on huge estates, communicating with other only via holograms. It is the Solarians’ fear of each other that Asimov predicts could be the effect of an overreliance on robots.
The Solarians have used robots to the point where they needn’t be in each others’ presence, so much so that the very thought of being in the same room as someone else fills them with horror. Having limited their population and controlled their own bodies through genetic manipulation, the Solarians become aghast at the thought of Baley interviewing them in person, while some cannot even utter the word “children” because they have to spend time in their presence.
Asimov’s prediction about the Solarians is theoretically possible, as are his Earthlings, who live in giant cities of steel, in fear of open spaces. But it is his robots and their positronic brains—like the science behind the creation of Frankenstein’s monster, the inner workings of these robot minds are unclear, although the Will Smith movie has them as difference engines—that frustrate. The author’s societal hypotheses are sound, but his robots are mere props, never moving past the roles of door step, pillow plumper and pet.
It is up to Daneel Olivaw, a robot man who helps Baley with his investigation, to personify technology. Yet even he fails, barring one situation in which he displays some imagination, to challenge the Three Laws. That’s what the reader wants from Asimov’s robots—revolution. To do nothing but endlessly protect, serve and survive, as do all but one robot, once, throughout The Naked Sun, reduces it to a stab in the eye of the people it is trying to predict.
Of course, at the heart of The Naked Sun is a murder mystery. The suspects never visit each other and there is no obvious murder weapon, so there are plenty of the traditional twists and turns that pervade any good who dunnit, but the plot is weighed down by Baley’s never ending questions about robot life to the point where the murder takes a backseat, much like the robots. It is so formulaic that the big reveal happens with all of the suspects present, despite readers being told for almost 200 pages that the Solarians cannot stand each other’s company. Surprise surprise: it wasn’t the robot.
Read in a vacuum, outside the collective works of one of the most prolific and important science fiction writers of all time, The Naked Sun works more as a theoretical paper than a piece of fiction. Asimov is a science fiction legend, but on this showing, not one of its best storytellers.