The Naked Sun
by Isaac Asimov
‘And at the very moment he felt Daneel’s hand clamping down upon his shoulders ….. But surely a robot would not dare use violence on a man. That thought was dominant. Daneel could not prevent him forcibly, and yet Baley felt the robot’s hands forcing him down.’
Written sixty years before Andy Weir’s Artemis, which I reviewed last week, The Naked Sun is Asimov’s second robot novel. [Wait, you say, what about I Robot and the rest? Well, they were short stories.] Not only is it science fiction but it is also a clever detective story, a galactic example of the locked room mystery that was so very popular around the middle of the 20th century.
Rikaine Delmarre is dead, bludgeoned to death with an unknown weapon. The murder is discovered by one of his household robots. There is only one suspect, his wife Gladia, who was found unconscious beside the body. But Gladia could not have done it; nor could the robot. Forget the Will Smith movie! Robots are bound by the First Law: ‘A robot may not injure a human being, or through inaction allow a human being to come to harm.’
The Delmarres are citizens of the planet Solaria, one of fifty worlds founded by the Spacers, the first wave of human exploration, and the most unusual. First settled as a ‘villa’ planet – think about the ancient Romans – Solaria is divided into vast estates, run entirely by the thousands of robots owned by each and every one of its 20,000 citizens. Crime is unheard of; the Spacers have apparently everything they could desire, freedom, leisure and an extended lifespan. Yet a crime has been committed.
To solve it, the Solarian authorities, on a recommendation from the government of the planet Aurora, engage Earth detective Elijah Baley and his Auroran partner Daneel Olivaw. They are unusual too. Elijah is afraid of open spaces, while Daneel is a humanoform robot, so skillfully constructed that even the expert robotocists of Solaria don’t recognise what he is.
‘ “It was only viewing, you see,” said Gladia contritely. She was wrapped in something that left her arms and shoulders free. One leg showed to mid-thigh, but Baley, entirely recovered and feeling an utter fool, ignored it stoically.’
Applying his Earth investigative methods to the case doesn’t make Elijah popular. He insists on SEEING people, as opposed to VIEWING them, the usual Solarian method of social intercourse. Gladia is something of a distraction. Young, attractive and sympathetic, he is drawn to her, despite his loyalty to his long-term Earth wife, Jessie. Gladia has no memory of what happened to her husband. But even if she is lying, she can’t possibly have murdered him. His robots would have stopped her because of the First Law.
Can First Law perhaps be manipulated? Gladia is an artist and would not have the skill, but an expert in robotic science might. Could the answer lie in Delmarre’s work as a fetologist, an unpopular profession as it involves physical contact with other human beings (and foetuses and children at that!)
‘It was his head that was spinning and the stone bench slanting beneath him and the sky heaving ….and Gladia screaming thinly and another sound …..’
One poisoning later, and after a terrifying experience under the naked sun of Solaria, Baley begins to sniff out the truth, and it’s much stranger than he imagined.
Asimov has few equals in inventing believable futuristic technology, or in penning a racy space mystery. However, I think his triumph in The Naked Sun lies in creating a future society whose idyllic facade hides a scary decadence and a simmering of human passions. This decadence and its un-human consequences is something the author picks up in later books. The Naked Sun works as an enjoyable detective story, but as sci-fi/space opera it is less satisfying than the two robot novels which followed it about thirty years later.**
‘Baley was expecting her; she had asked for a last interview; but his eyes widened as she appeared.
‘He said, “I’m seeing you.”
‘ “Yes,” said Gladia. “How can you tell?”
” “You’re wearing gloves.” ‘
[** The Robots of Dawn in 1984, and Robots and Empire in 1985]