Monday, January 4, 2010

Isaac Asimov's The Naked Sun

This year’s Christmas stocking was filled with a few mid-century golden era science fiction novels by Isaac Asimov. I hadn’t heard of any of these and had assumed they’d gone out of print, but a quick search on Amazon convinces me I’m mistaken: The Naked Sun, Pebble in the Sky, The Currents of Space.

It’s nice that folks are still buying and reading these books. There’s an implicit optimism in Asimov’s sci-fi which has gone around from exciting to quaint to imperialistic to gauche and has come back to just plain fun.

I just finished The Naked Sun, which, written in 1956, was the most recent of the three. It involves a plainclothes detective getting sent to the “outer planet” of Solaria to solve a murder - a crime unheard of on a planet with no want, 20,000 souls, and 200 million positronic robots.

SF was just starting to push into sociology at this point, so if it seems like Asimov is approaching his subject with big clumsy mittens on, it’s important to remember where he’s coming from. Earth: overpopulated to the point where people have to live in layers and layers of underground tunnels, so that they develop a pathologic fear of open spaces. The alien planet, Solaria: underpopulated and with so much robot labor available that people never see each other in person; rather they “view” each other with the aid of holographic cameras and projectors. Maintaining extensive estates with your robots is a point of such pride that physical contact with another human being becomes so taboo that it affects a physical response.

Oh my, how could someone commit a murder on a planet where folks can’t stand to be within a dozen meters of each other? Gosh, how are Earthmen who have become terrified of open spaces ever going to flourish in the galactic community again?

55 years on, we have to suspend an extra layer of disbelief - the disbelief that these would be the sorts of problems we’ll have in the distant future. We’re not going to worry about those singularity-driven artificial intelligences pulverizing the solar system into computronium. Terminators and Y2K? Nah. We’re all about psychological hang-ups and loopholes in the laws of robotics, up in the year four-thousand-some-odd. And we’re still running police departments from behind desks littered with papers while we smoke our pipes and cigars.

Unfortunately it’s impossible to read these books without seeing the flimsy cardboard props and painted backdrops of 1950s movie sets: the gritty underground governmental offices of an over-crowded Earth; the idyllic, robot tended estates of the sparsely populated outer planets. Except for the robots and the FTL rocket travel, Asimov doesn’t break the bank on special effects, here. The characters are all classic movie tropes too. There’s the hard-nosed but practical detective and the misunderstood widow-cum-murder suspect whose passions could never succumb to the sterile culture she was raised in. Strangely enough, the positronic robots, which are referred to as “boy,” by characters throughout the book, never seem to rise above the rank of scarcely noticed negroes. Spoiler: I kept waiting for their revolt, for the revelation that they were complex enough to be people just like us. But this isn’t the book for that kind of revelation.

I’m making all kinds of fun here. But I can’t help feeling that the reason all these tropes and cliches don’t ruin this little outer-space murder mystery is they’re effective. (“I can’t stand reading Shakespeare. There’s so many cliches!”) I mean, sure, all this stuff has been used before, right down to the mystery plot. But it hasn’t been used in space. And if our lives can carry on in space with the same sorts of drama that we’ve got going on here and now, well, then, maybe there’s a chance for us out there.

After all, who doesn’t like to think that human life will carry on outside our gravity well? And who doesn't want to own robots?

Fer Chrissakes, it’s 2010 already. I should own two.

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Asimov wrote over 400 books, most of which are still in print, without ever dwelling on violence or more than hinting at sex.  Diplomacy wins out over space battles and slimy alien pods, here.   This is probably another reason why we feel compelled to make fun of him even while we can't stop buying his books.

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Is it me, or do genre book covers get progressively worse in later editions?  The earliest cover (the one I have) hints at the themes of the book and leaves the rest to imagination.  The second has nothing to do with the plot, but at least it titillates a bit - and titillation is something I can support (in moderation).

The last cover, from the 80s I would guess, hits you over the head with an ideological hammer.  "Hmm, let's see.  A man.  I get that.  A robot, that I can understand.  A robot disguised as a man?  Some kind of ambiguous cyborg?  Is there a soul in there?  Oh noes me circuits are blown!"

Not to mention that Asimov never even touched on themes of robot/human ambiguity in the book!

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Oh hey -  this paperback edition, which was printed in 1958, cost 35 cents.  Which is about $2.75 in today's dollars.  But last time I checked, a mass-market paperback at Barnes and Noble was around nine bucks.

What's up with that?


  1. Way back in '70 I was invited to a private dinner with Mr Asimov when he spoke at our university. He was a fascinating man,and very a humorous speaker. Glad to see he is still being read.

  2. James - That must have been wonderful to hear. I understand he was a phenomenal speaker. So much so that he made more money from making appearances than he did from writing the 500+ books he put out in his lifetime.

  3. Hello...I am a follower of your lovely wife and decided to pop in here. You have touched on a topic near and dear to my heart.

    I am an avid reader, myself. And it boils my blood that books have become so insanely priced. I no longer purchase new books. I live less than a mile from the library and that is where I get my reading material. Or I buy things used at yard sales, used book stores, or in the book sale room at the library. They sell books for 50 cents each, One dollar for the hard covers ones.

    Thanks for the blog. I look forwards to reading on it!