The Naked Sun is the second of Isaac Asimov’s books about police detective Elijah Baley and the humanoid robot R. Daneel Olivaw. Asimov wrote the first book, Caves of Steel (reviewed by Steven), as the answer to John W. Campbell’s challenge to create a science fiction murder mystery. Asimov succeeded, of course, and chose to give us another installment. You don’t absolutely need to read Caves of Steel before reading The Naked Sun, but it’d probably be a little easier if you did. The Naked Sun takes place a couple of years after the events of Caves of Steel, in some far-future Earth after humans have created and evolved separate cultures by settling other planets.
Elijah Baley lives in New York City, which is overcrowded and domed. The people of Earth have become afraid of the outdoors, open spaces, and even their own sun. The “spacers” despise the crowds and germs of Earth, so they choose to live in separate areas when they’re forced to visit Earth. In Caves of Steel, Elijah was assigned to solve the murder of a spacer. Against his wishes, he had to work with Daneel, who was sent from another planet to help with the investigation. At first Elijah hated the robot, but the man and machine ended up forming a bond based on mutual respect and appreciation. Now, because of Elijah’s brilliance in solving the spacer murder mystery, he has been summoned to the planet Solaris to solve another murder. Elijah is afraid to leave Earth, but his success will mean advancement that will give his family more status and comforts. He is delighted when he discovers that Daneel will be joining him again.
Just like the first murder mystery, this one is complicated, convoluted, and difficult to solve. The man who was murdered was alone except for his robots. Everyone knows that a robot cannot hurt a human being (remember Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics?) yet that seems to be exactly what happened. Of course, Elijah will eventually figure out whodunit, but he’ll come to several wrong conclusions before finally cracking the case.
Asimov’s murder mysteries are entertaining. Elijah and Daneel are great characters and the settings are unusual. Asimov uses the mystery to explore the complexities and implications of the Three Laws. Could a robot commit murder while still technically obeying the Three Laws? Asimov spends a lot of time on this topic and it’s a nice exercise in logic to contemplate how the Three Laws could fail.
A problem I have with many of Asimov’s stories is that I can’t believe in the societies he proposes. In this one, Solaris is populated by only 20,000 humans who’ve spread out so that they never need to see or touch each other except for the purpose of breeding children. Therefore, they’ve evolved a revulsion to their fellow humans. They only visit each other virtually and they have an aversion to affection, marriage, and children, to the point that these words are considered obscene and many Solarians will become psychotic if they have to physically be with other humans. Yet they still keep the institution of marriage (which they despise) so they can create fetuses which they then turn over to the government to raise. (You’d think this high-tech society would just use artificial insemination, but if they did the story wouldn’t work, so they don’t.) Despite the absurdity of Asimov’s society, I appreciate his conclusion about the importance of human connection.
It seems to me that Asimov was more interested in exploring evolutionary psychology and the Three Laws than in creating a believable story. His writing style is more concerned with getting ideas across than making them beautiful to read. And of course there’s the sexism — most of Asimov’s female characters (when there are any) are stupid whimpering damsels in distress. But if you’re looking for a novel with challenging ideas, likeable male characters and a complicated mystery to solve, The Naked Sun might be just what you want.
I listened to William Dufris narrate the audio version of The Naked Sun. He gives an excellent lively performance, just like he always does. This audio production was originally released by Tantor Audio several years ago but was just re-released by Random House Audio this month. It’s almost eight hours long.