Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Evil Under the Sun

1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. 
2. A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.
The Three Laws of Robotics

Man, that's some nicely painted cover art! It might be me, but I have the feeling that these kind of covers aren't that common anymore in English-language releases.

Colonization of other planets have created a rift between the humans of Earth, who live in gigantic sealed cities of steel that keep fresh air and the sky outside, and the "Spacers", who enjoy economic and military superiority thanks to extensive use of robots. In The Caves of Steel, police detective Elijah Baley was forced to work together with the Spacer robot R. Daneel Olivaw (R. stands for Robot) on a murder investigation on a Spacer outpost on Earth. In Isaac Asimov's The Naked Sun (1956), Elijah is sent out as the first Earth-human in centuries to venture outside Earth: local authorities on the planet Solaria have trouble with a murder, because it's basically the first murder that happened there. The prosperous planet has a fixed population of twenty-thousand and because of the enormous estates available for each person, the Solarians have lost their need for personal contact. Most people only "view" each other through holographic projections and even married couples rarely "see" each other. It is under these circumstances that Rikaine Delmarre was murdered. Logically, only his wife could have come close enough to actually murder him, but there was no murder weapon found on the scene. Elijah and Daneel are asked to solve the case, as an Earthling would have much more experience with such vulgar and intimate behavior like murder.

The Naked Sun is a direct sequel to The Caves of Steel, which was an excellent science fiction mystery novel that presented a fleshed-out future Earth where the evolution of humankind on Earth appears to be reaching a critical point and robots have become more or less accepted as common tools in society. Asimov's famous Three Laws of Robotics also featured heavily in the novel and were used in surprising ways to give the reader a perfectly fair and intricately plotted impossible crime.

The Naked Sun lacks the impact factor The Caves of Steel had for me, as it was the first in the series I read, but it is still an excellent mystery novel that builds further on the foundations laid in the first novel. The most interesting point about the book is definitely the special socio-cultural environment of Solaria: Solarians absolutely detest personal contact and the actual presence of other people. All contact is done through holographic projections and practically everything is done by robots, so the Solarians all live in perfect leisure without having to do a thing. The result is that the Solarians are described in a way similar to how the robots work in Asimov's work: like robots, Solarians have specific characteristics that prevent them from doing certain actions.

That is why the murder on Rikaine can be presented as an impossible crime. Psychologically speaking, only the wife could have come close to the victim, as the only person with whom he occassionally had personal contact, yet there was no murder weapon found on the crime scene. So physically someone else must have done it and taken the weapon with them, yet psychologically the victim would never have allowed other people to come even close, and very probably the same for the murderer. It is a very interesting conumdrum that arises from Asimov's careful plotting and rules and I absolutely love it.

Like in The Caves of Steel, the Three Laws of Robotics are of great importance in this novel and Asimov manages to explore them even more as both a mystery plot device (once again, very cleverly so), as well as a philosophical question, using Elijah and the robot Daneel to explore the consequences and limits of the three laws.

I hardly read science fiction, but I kinda like the sociological discussions that go in Asimov's Robot series. The questions of where humankind could be going, the man-machine interface, the way communities develop under special circumstances: personally I find this all very interesting and I think Asimov's done a great job at addressing these questions, but still keeping these themes very relevant to the main mystery plot. Oh, as for other science fiction mysteries: I also liked Inherit the Stars!

Anyway, The Naked Sun is a great science fiction mystery novel that does everything it wants to do fantastically: it is a great mystery novel, it is a great science fiction novel and it's fun. Will probably read the last book in the series (relatively) soon!


  1. I have often thought that Asimov's robot stories were not really about robots at all. As I look at the stories, the robots really don't do anything that people do not do. Olivaw, for instance, is really just another detective. The fact that he is a robot does not seem to really matter, except in regard to the constraints on his conduct of the three laws. So the stories are really exercises in semantics. The question is, just what do the words of the three laws of robotics actually mean? And in fact, although the laws themselves seem to be worded simply and straightforwardly, by the time we come to the end of the series, it seems to me that they don't have any real meaning at all. The words used are so broadly defined and value-laden that they don't have any real regulatory effect on robot conduct. Just what does the word "harm" mean? We have millions of court cases which have to interpret statutes relating to harm, but in the end the juries just apply what appears to them to be common sense. The problem for robots is that they do not have any common sense, only programming.

    People tend to overlook the contribution of John W. Campbell who, as Asimov himself states, first enunciated the three laws. Further, Campbell was a peerless editor who kept Asimov's and Heinlein's books at a tolerable length. After they stopped writing for Campbell, their books became extremely bloated. I think there is a general consensus that their later books were not as effective as their earlier ones, in part due to bloat. I will be interested to see what you think of The Robots of Dawn, which shares the bloat of the later period.
    I seem to recall that the Baley novels were originally planned as a trilogy. However, after The Naked Sun appeared in Astounding Science Fiction in 1957, he dropped the series, and did not pick it up again with The Robots of Dawn until 1983, almost 30 years later. It did not seem to me to be a successful revival, but you may have a different opinion.
    I think Asimov's intent with the three books was to show three different types of societies: the first book shows a society where robot use is restricted, the second society is one where robot use is predominant, and the third society shows a human/robot integrated society.
    I agree with you, most modern book covers are very bad.

  2. After I published my comment, your program wanted to know whether or not I was a robot! I think there is a story in there somewhere. As with the Turing Test, people are interested in determining whether a robot is like a human. But now we have reached the point where a human has to prove he is not a robot! I wonder where that is going to lead?

  3. Replies
    1. How do you know you're not a robot?! ;)

      You make an interesting point on semantics and that is perhaps why overall, these novels feel quite satisfying as mystery novels (or at least to me). A lot of the more memorable genre novels I've read are based on some trick with a semantics or linguistics background.

      Robots of Dawn review is already finished and scheduled to be posted in about a week. Actually, the review has been waiting in the queue for... probably more than six months. I'd forgotten what I'd written about it, but a quick peek showed that I wasn't very enthusiastic about that one either.

  4. I completely agree: Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun are fantastic genre-benders, which demonstrated perfectly why the advent of technology does not have to negate clever plotting.

    Unfortunately, Asimov did exactly that in the third and fourth entry in the series: The Robots of Dawn is about a case of "roboticide," but the explanation is a cheat and most of the book is spend on social commentary. Robots and Empires is an out-and-out SF novel.

    Judging from your last line, my warning about Robots of Dawn came too late for you, but you've been warned about the final book. Unless you like pure-SF as well.

    By the way, if you enjoyed Caves of Steel, The Naked Sun and James Hogan's Inherit the Stars, you might also want to take a look at the short story collection Asimov's Mysteries and Manly Wade Wellman's Devil's Planet, which is a fair-play SF-mystery predating Caves of Steel by more than a decade.

    1. I do actually like the social commentary in the novels, but as an extra to the mystery plot, so I'll probably skip on Robots and Empires. I don't have anything against SF, but it's just not a genre I often read.

      And thanks for the recommendations! Funnily enough, I think I have read more fantasy-inspired mystery novels than SF mystery novels (though they don't differ that much actually).

  5. I'd had this sitting on my shelf for aaaages, and have just read it motivated by your post. It's....okay. Certainly the mechanics of the crime are quite well thought through, but it fels like Asimov lost his hold on the society he was creating. Caves of Steel felt almost like a warning, whereas this feels more false in setup than any Country House Murder in the Drawing Room and the impact was lost for me.

    The more Asimov novels I read, the more I realise that he was a far superior short story writer. The payoff here would have been more effective at the end of 20 pages than the end of 200. Although I seem to be saying that about a lot of stuff lately, so maybe I'm just getting impatient in my old age...!

    1. Better stay away from The Robots of Dawn, because there's where Asimov really moves the focus to his society, rather than the mystery plot. I still like The Naked Sun, but its setting is a bit more bare-bones (and empty) than the previous book, and thus might feel a bit more artificial, I guess.

      I haven't read any of Asimov's short stories actually, now I think about it. Probably should start with the Black Widowers, I guess?

    2. Or the Asimov's Mysteries collection, where he wrote a series of SF-based crime and mystery stories just to show that it could still be done. They're not exactly classics, but it's huge fun to see an essentially SF undertaking still stick to classical rules.