The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov (1956)

‘You had a plainer motive, too, Dr Leebig. Dr. Rikaine Delmarre was in the way of your plans, and had to be removed.’
‘What plans?’ demanded Leebig.
‘Your plans aiming at the conquest of the Galaxy, Dr. Leebig,’ said Baley.
(Chapter 17, A Meeting is Held)

It is 3,000 years in the future. Humanity is dived between ‘Spacers’, who have colonised 50 of the ‘outer planets’ which rely heavily on robot labour, and have developed cultures and laws of their own – and earth, packed to the brim with 8 billion citizens, all raised in the subterranean cells and covered domes of 200 vast super-cities, terrified of ‘the outdoors’, used to cramped living space, rationed artificial food, and a rigidly hierarchical society.

Detective Elijah Baley, who we first met in The Caves of Steel, has been promoted to grade C-6. Despite his protests he is assigned another murder case, but this time on a remote planet out there in space somewhere, Solaria.

Baley’s agoraphobia

As usual, Asimov’s description of many of the appurtenances of his imagined future are genuinely interesting and effective, especially around Baley’s fear of the open. Asimov powerfully conveys Baley’s terror at being forced to catch a plane from New York to Washington – over and again he fixates on how there’s only an inch or so of steel between you and… nothingness! – and then petrified at taking a spaceship. He is horrified when he lands on Solaria to learn that the human population has windows in its buildings and wander around outside.

It is one of the themes of the book how Baley he tries to nerve himself to get used to being ‘outside’: these are interesting attempts to convey how generation after generation of humans living in completely covered urban ‘wombs’ would create a new human nature and psychological conventions.

Baley is pretty much blackmailed to take the case by his boss, Under-Secretary Minnim. If he refuses, he’ll be ‘declassified’ i.e. he and his family will lose all their privileges in the city. And Minnim asks him not only to solve the case, but to keep his eye open and record everything he observed about the outer Worlds, their strengths and weaknesses. ‘Be a spy?’ asks Baley.

It comes as a huge relief when, there to greet him on his spaceship’s arrival on Solaria, is the advanced, humanoid robot, Daneel Olivaw, who had worked with on the case described in the prequel, The Caves of Steel.

Solaria’s peculiarities

Another prominent element is the drastically ‘different’ customs of the Spacers who live on Solaria. Here people, from birth, avoid personal contact, and live on huge estates which are worked by vast populations of specialised robots. There are only some 20,000 humans on the whole planet but two hundred million robots – that’s ten thousand robots to every human!

People live either alone or with a spouse but physical contact – even being in the same room – ‘seeing’ someone in the flesh – is regarded with disgust. Instead, communication is carried out through holography (referred to as ‘viewing’). Only then are the Solarians truly relaxed about what they wear or say.

As the leading Solarian sociologist tells him, when Baley, insists on actually visiting him, in the flesh:

‘You’ll forgive me, Mr. Baley, but in the actual presence of a human, I feel strongly as though something slimy were about to touch me. I keep shrinking away. It is most unpleasant.’

The plot

As to the plot, it kicks off like hundreds of thousands of detective stories, with a murder. Rikaine Delmarre is a prominent Solarian and a foetologist by profession and he is found, at his house, with his head smashed in as with a blunt implement. Unfortunately, his household robots clean up the crime scene so efficiently and even dispose of the body by incinerating it, that there isn’t a shred of evidence left at the scene of the crime.

It’s only well over half way through the book that we discover what this means, when Baley visits what he expects to be a laboratory and discovers it is in fact the baby farm which provides all of Solaria’s population. He is shown round by Delmarre’s assistant, Kiorissa Cantoro, who explains how ‘growing’ babies in test tubes is the logical extension of the Solarians’ distaste for being physically near anyone. In the same way, the babies, once hatched, are raised entirely by robots, lacking any contact with adults.

Ordinarily, Delmarre’s wife, Gladia, would be the prime suspect, since no-one else had access to or was anywhere their joint home (not that she was physically anywhere near him at the time; robots summoned her after the murder and she discovered a robot had been present but had a nervous breakdown due to its failure to implement Asimov’s First Law of Robots:

A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

On first arriving at the house (which has been built specially to accommodate him during his stay and will be demolished after he leaves) Baley has several holographic interviews with the man who asked for his services, Hannis Gruer, the Head of Security on Solaria. Hannis explains that they have no crime on Solaria, none at all. So a murder has really thrown them, but they had heard of his reputation through his involvement with the murder of a Spacer which was heavily publicised in the Outer Worlds (the subject of the first novel in the series, The Caves of Steel).

About the third time they’re chatting via hologram during a meal, Hannis takes a swig of his glass and is immediately poisoned, saying his throat is burning, falls to the floor and passes out with Baley, of course, unable to do nothing. Hannis is replaced, as Baley’s contact point with Solario authorities, by Corwin Attlebish.

Baley has an interview with the planet’s leading sociologist, Anselmo Quemot, who boasts about his theory that Solario has reached an optimum human-robot population. Henceforward the human population will not grow. And how, eventually all planets, even earth, will become like this. A finite, controlled human population surrounded by vast hordes or robot slaves.

And he also meets Dr Jothan Leebig, Solario’s premier roboticist. With him Baley points out the flaw in the First Law of Robotics. Ostensibly the law says no robot may harm a human. But it doesn’t take account of intention. It should really read that no robot may intentionally harm a human.

The climax

After all the effort put into creating an entirely new world with its own rules and conventions, and into creating half a dozen characters, with whom Baley has elaborate, and sometimes interesting, conversations, the climax is straight from an Agatha Christie novel, with Baley playing the role of Hercules Poirot.

He arranges a conference holographic call with all the characters we’ve met so far, namely: Gladia, Kiorissa, Attlebish, Quemot, Leebig, plus the doctor who attended the scene of the original murder, Dr Altim Thool.

Asimov employs the tried and tested formula of proceeding slowly and leveling an accusing finger at each of the people present one by one until… with a grand flourish, he reveals the true murderer. It is Dr Jothan Leebig.

His motive? He had several. One, he was susceptible to the charms of Gladia Delmarre, young and good looking who, in her first scenes with Baley we had witnessed casually walking about half-undressed (because it was only via ‘viewing’, not in-the-flesh ‘seeing’). She is frustrated by the lack of attention from her dry-as-dust husband, Rikaine, not enough to murder him, but enough to flirt, maybe unconsciously, with other men.

Leebig offered her a job as his secretary but when she turned it down his adoration, as so often in these kind of picturebook versions of human nature, turned to hatred and he devised the murder to take his revenge on both the Delmarres.

‘You despised yourself for your weakness, and hated Mrs. Delmarre for inspiring it. And yet you might have hated Delmarre, too, for having her.’

But why kill the doctor at all? Because Delmarre knew about Leebig’s experimental work into expanding robot capabilities. In particular he knew about Leebig’s plan to create spaceships controlled by positronic brains. Now, ordinarily, a robot simply cannot harm a human: their positronic brains are wired in such a way that they would short-circuit. Even witnessing harm to humans damages them, as the way the brain of the robot who witnessed Delmarre be murdered had completely fried.

But Leebig was planning to make spaceships with positronic brains which would assume that any spaceships which opposed it were also manned only by robots and positronic brains and that it could therefore destroy them with impunity. Such spaceships would behave more logically than ones captained by humans, and would almost certainly win all their battles. Or, as Baley puts it:

‘But a spaceship that was equipped with its own positronic brain would cheerfully attack any ship it was directed to attack, it seems to me. It would naturally assume all other ships were unmanned. A positronic-brained ship could easily be made incapable of receiving messages from enemy ships that might undeceive it. With its weapons and defenses under the immediate control of a positronic brain, it would be more maneuverable than any manned ship. With no room necessary for crewmen, for supplies, for water or air purifiers, it could carry more armor, more weapons and be more invulnerable than any ordinary ship. One ship with a positronic brain could defeat fleets of ordinary ships. Am I wrong?’

Leebig was, in other words, working on a plan to take over the galaxy!!

As a grown-up reader, it was difficult not to smile at the sheer pulp grandiosity of this motive.

The murder weapon – which Baley and robot Daneel have cudgelling their brains trying to figure out and which provided many a red herring throughout the book? The robot which had been in attendance on Delmarre throughout the murder. What? How? It was one of a new range Delmarre himself was working on with detachable limbs. Get it yet? The murder walked up to Delmarre and his robot, ordered the robot to give him his arm, the robot did so, Leebig smashed Delmarre’s head in with it, then clipped the arm back onto the robot which, by this stage, had gone into meltdown.

How did Leebig manage to sneak up on Delmarre? Because Delmarre was a ‘good Solarian’ who had given up ‘seeing’ people in the flesh when he was still a boy. thereafter all his interactions were via hologram. Therefore, when Leebig arrived at his house and entered his room and walked up to him… he simply couldn’t believe, until the last minute, that he was not a hologram. Too late.

I was smiling through all this explication, a smile which got broader when all the (holographic) faces in this meeting turn to Leebig who furiously denies it all, until… Baley plays his master-stroke and reveals that his assistant Daneel Olivaw has, all this time a) been at Leebig’s laboratory securing the records of all his research there which will no doubt prove the positronic spaceship theory but now b) is on his way to Leebig’s house to arrest him in person.

Now Asimov had carefully planted in Baley’s holographic interview with Leebig that the latter was really hysterically afraid of face-to-face contact with humans. When Baley had threatened to do it, Leebig had been reduced to sucking his thumb like a boy and crying. Now, at the threat of another human entering his personal space, Leebig collapses:

‘But I won’t see him. I can’t see him.’ The roboticist fell to his knees without seeming aware of the motion. He put his hands together in a desperate clasped gesture of appeal. ‘What do you want? Do you want a confession? Delmarre’s robot had detachable limbs. Yes. Yes. Yes. I arranged Gruer’s poisoning. I arranged the arrow meant for you. I even planned the spaceships as you said. I haven’t succeeded, but, yes, I planned it. Only keep the man away. Don’t let him come. Keep him away!’

In other words, the accused man makes a full and free confession in front of all his peers. And then – as if that wasn’t cheesy enough – as we hear the arrival of Daneel, we see Leebig fall to the floor, beg to be left alone, then scrabble in his pockets for something which he outs into his mouth, is seized with a spasm of agony, and collapse dead on the floor.

The irony, laid on with a planet-sized trowel, is that the ‘human’ whose proximity drove Leebig to suicide, is none other than Daneel who is, of course… a robot!

If you’re not roaring with laughter by this stage then you are probably the kind of 14-year-old boy this kind of story was originally aimed at.

Coda 1 – last scene with Gladia

There’s more, more clichés. In a final scene Baley has a last interview with Gladia. She is going to Aurora (traveling with Daneel, since Auroroa is his home planet). She has to get away from the scene of this awful murder! He is surprised that she agrees to be there in person i.e. she has agreed to ‘see’ him.

‘Why have you decided to see, rather than view?’
‘Well’ – she smiled weakly – ‘I’ve got to get used to it, don’t I, Elijah? I mean, if I’m going to Aurora.’
‘Then it’s all arranged?’
‘Mr. Olivaw seems to have influence. It’s all arranged. I’ll never come back.’
‘Good. You’ll be happier, Gladia. I know you will.”
I’m a little afraid.’
‘I know. It will mean seeing all the time and, you won’t have all the comforts you had on Solaria. But you’ll get used to it and, what’s more, you’ll forget all the terror you’ve been through.’
‘I don’t want to forget everything,’ said Gladia softly.
‘You will.’ Baley looked at the slim girl who stood before him and said, not without a momentary pang, ‘And you will be married someday, too. Really married, I mean.”
Somehow,” she said mournfully, “that doesn’t seem so attractive to me – right now.’
‘You’ll change your mind.’
And they stood there, looking at each other for a wordless moment.
Gladia said, ‘I’ve never thanked you.’
Baley said, ‘It was only my job.’

Aw shucks, John Wayne.

Asimov may have set out to demonstrate that science fiction wasn’t a genre but a topic or theme which could be applied to any genre. But in these books he merely proved that science fiction can be just as larded with corny characters and hammy scenarios as any 3rd-rate Hollywood B-movie.

As usual, the plot and lots of the characterisation are laughable, they would make a writer of Mills and Boon romances blush with shame.

Again a silent moment while they faced each other at ten paces. Then Gladia cried suddenly, ‘Oh, Elijah, you’ll think it abandoned of me.’
‘Think what abandoned?’
‘May I touch you? I’ll never see you again, Elijah.’
‘If you want to.’
Step by step, she came closer, her eyes glowing, yet looking apprehensive, too. She stopped three feet away, then slowly, as though in a trance, she began to remove the glove on her right hand.
Baley started a restraining gesture. ‘Don’t be foolish, Gladia.’
‘I’m not afraid,’ said Gladia.
Her hand was bare. It trembled as she extended it.
And so did Baley’s as he took her hand in his. They remained so for one moment, her hand a shy thing, frightened as it rested in his. He opened his hand and hers escaped, darted suddenly and without warning toward his face until her fingertips rested feather-light upon his cheek for the barest moment.
She said, ‘Thank you, Elijah. Good-by.’
He said, ‘Good-by, Gladia,’ and watched her leave.

BUT – the book is sort of worth reading for not one but two extended tropes, which are thought provoking – maybe it’s better so say imagination-provoking – and which it dramatises at length, namely:

  • Baley’s struggle to cope with being outdoors generated by the entrenched claustrophobia of an overpopulated underground earth culture
  • and the opposite, the repulsion at physical contact or even proximity, created by the exact opposite type of planet, so sparsely populated that individuals almost never meet, except via cam

These two worldviews or psychological states dominate the book and it is interesting to do the thought experiment of thinking your way into these kinds of altered states. Despite Asimov’s rickety plot and execrable English, nonetheless, what if…?

Coda 2 – Baley reports back to Minnim

Remember how Minnim had asked Baley to be a spy. He is thrilled with Baley’s findings because they appear to show that Solaris has become decadent, individuals living too long, and too isolated. Baley expresses this as the fact that they have stopped being tribal of having to co-operate and also conflict. Minnim joyfully sees this as confirmation that Earth will not be conquered by the Spacers who will decline.

But Baley hasn’t finished. He goes on to prove the exact opposite. He says that Solaris is an exception to the outer Worlds, the planet most like Solaria is Earth. Earthers have buried themselves in underground cities and locked themselves away from the rest of the galaxy.

Earthers need to get out, leave earth, go and colonise, face a brave future. that turns out to be the epiphany he had as he faced the outdoors for the first time in his life. He didn’t like it, but he realised it brought a whole new dimension to his life, and that all mankind must face up to it as he has.

Baley felt as though a touch of madness had come over him. From the very first the open had had its weird attraction over him; from the time in the ground-car when he had tricked Daneel in order to have the top lowered so that he might stand up in the open air.

He had failed to understand then. Daneel thought he was being perverse. Baley himself thought he was facing the open out of professional necessity, to solve a crime. Only on that last evening on Solaria, with the curtain tearing away from the window, did he realize his need to face the open for the open’s own sake; for its attraction and its promise of freedom.

There must be millions on Earth who would feel that same urge, if the open were only brought to their attention, if they could be made to take the first step.

So, despite the detective novel trappings, deep down the book turns out to have been a sort of primer, explaining how humans did decide to escape earth. It sets up the origins of the Galactic Empire described in the Foundation books. If all this requires is for Baley’s character and beliefs to undergo a 180 degree transformation, well, too bad for character and plausibility. it was never Asimov’s prime concern. His Visions of Great Futures are his prime concern.

He had told Minnim the Cities were wombs, and so they were. And what was the first thing a man must do before he can be a man? He must be born. He must leave the womb. And once left, it could not be re-entered.
Baley had left the City and could not re-enter. The City was no longer his; the Caves of Steel were alien. This had to be. And it would be so for others and Earth would be born again and reach outward.
His heart beat madly and the noise of life about him sank to an unheard murmur.
He remembered his dream on Solaria and he understood it at last. He lifted his head and he could see through all the steel and concrete and humanity above him. He could see the beacon set in space to lure men outward. He could see it shining down. The naked sun!

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1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
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1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov
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1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic

1980 Russian Hide and Seek by Kingsley Amis – in an England of the future which has been invaded and conquered by the Russians, a hopeless attempt to overthrow the occupiers is easily crushed
1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the Golden Era of the genre, namely the 1950s

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