Sunday, November 12, 2023

The Naked Sun, by Isaac Asimov

Agoraphobic detective Elijah Baley is sent to the wide open spaces of the planet Solaria to investigate a murder. This is a planet where people don't mix in person, only by remote "tridimensional" video link (think Zoom but in 3D), and there's no sign of a murder weapon. It's a classic locked-room mystery but it takes Baley's outsider's perspective to spot the obvious factor that everyone else overlooks...

It's been fascinating to reread this classic sci-fi murder mystery first published in 1958, which I originally read in my teens. I don't think then that I knew of its obvious influence on the 1977 Doctor Who story The Robots of Death. And I hadn't made the connection before to Baley's frequent exclamation "Jehosophat" and the 1983 Doctor Who story The Five Doctors. When, in that, the Third Doctor exclaims "Jehosophat", I'd thought it showed his intimate knowledge of the past - a reference to the fourth king of Judah in the Old Testament. But used in the same manner that Baley says it, it's a word from the future.

More extraordinary is how modern some of this novel seems. There's a lot on the psychological impact of not meeting in person but communicating remotely, with which we've all got first-hand experience thanks to lockdown. Asimov's view is that the technology enables a phenomenon that becomes self-enforcing: the less people interact in person, the more horrified they are by the prospect of doing so, leading to a whole culture of isolation. Baley, as visitor, becomes attuned to their horror at the very notion of physical contact. Just the suggestion of proximity, the thought of touch and breath and smell from other bodies, can lead to extreme reactions - in line with some recent conversations I've had with friends about how slow we've been to resocialise. 

Extending from this horror of contact, the Solarians struggle to say the word "children" because of what their existence implies; without quite spelling it out, there's an implicit aversion to sex. A key distinction is made on Solaria between "viewing" (remotely) and "seeing" (in person). On page 51, murder suspect Gladia Delmarre steps out of the shower in front of a shocked Baley and thinks nothing of it herself because he's not physically present. On page 118, Baley is quick to stop another woman, Klorissa Cantoro, from undressing in front of him. This stuff, I think, is titillation for the adolescent, male and straight audience assumed to be reading, but any reading is overshadowed by the author's own dealings with women.
"Asimov, who described himself as a feminist, casually groped female fans for years." Astounding, by Alec Nevala-Lee, p. 12.
The women here are certainly objectified. At no point is Baley at risk of seeing male Solarians naked as it would not have the same effect. Also, Solarians recoil at the duty to marry and have children, but there's no suggestion that some of them might do so because they are anything other than heteronormative and sexual. For all the outlandish rules of this society on another world, it takes for granted various social norms that seem rather parochial now.

I'm also stuck by what feels incongruous for a futuristic story: Baley smokes a pipe. Perhaps that's in line with something he says on page 183: "having eliminated the impossible, what remains, however improbable, is the truth." But for all he might be moulded in the form of 19th century detective Sherlock Holmes, only transposed to the future, The Naked Sun is bound up in anxieties of its time.

We're told, for example, that the imposition of marriage and procreation keeps the population stable, and that the murdered man is a fetologist, working to screen and improve the genetic stock on explicitly eugenicist lines. 
"And no one would believe me capable of so seriously psychotic an act as murder. Not with my gene make-up. So don't waste accusations on me." (pp. 126-7)
That idea of purity among the minority elite on Solaria plays against the slave-class majority: we're told (for example, on p. 191) that robots outnumber humans 10,000 to one. The analogy in the book is to the helots, the Ancient Greek people subjugated by the Spartans. But there's surely a more contemporary resonance in what's being described here, to civil rights in the US and anticolonialism abroad. More than proximity, there's a greater terror to this elite - that this majority might become conscious of this gross imbalance of power.
"But what if some human threatened to teach the robots how to harm humans; to make them, in other words, capable of revolting?" (pp. 190-1)
An age ago, when I did my master's degree in science-fiction at the University of Reading, one tutor suggested a good way to grasp the workings of any given utopia: look at how children are raised in it. One thing that's striking now is that Baley (and perhaps Asimov, too) takes for granted the old saying, "spare the rod, spoil the child": it's seen as fundamentally problematic that robots, programmed to never harm humans, won't inflict "discipline" on the children in their care. The implication is that such discipline is physical, i.e. beating the child. 

Just as troubling, we see that children on Solaria instinctively play together in person and need touch and affection (the latter supplied by robots), but are gradually taught to isolate themselves from one another. They are taught to recoil from one another - and to depersonalise others. On page 134, we learn one small boy views Baley as an inferior kind of human because he is from Earth, and therefore someone who, like robots, can be the target of arrows.

This idea of how people can come to be seen is central to a book about exposure under the titular naked sun. Given the careful distinction between "viewing" and "seeing", it's notable that Baley's partner R. Daneel Olivaw is not recognised for what he really is. The Solarians assume (and at one point someone's life depends on thinking) that he is human, when he is a robot. The Solarian robots do not have names and each has a specific function. Yet for all they are treated like appliances, they have feelings - upset if a human does their jobs, or if a human is hurt. Olivaw is a more complicated case: the Solarians unwittingly treat him as a person - but so does Baley, for all he knows the truth. He might be a bit dismissive of and irritated by this robot, but no more so than he is with other humans. Olivaw has some agency but The Robots of Death takes the logical step not taken here: that robots are an oppressed people deserving liberation.

(One day, I'll return to what was meant to be a lockdown project of watching particular episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation. I have things to say about Data's evident personhood and the repeated efforts by his own employers to deny it.)

Other things are striking about The Naked Sun. The women characters are rather two-dimensional (for all we view them in 3D), Baley is often cross and difficult for no particular reason, and there's no great concern at the end that his actions lead to someone's death. For all it's a murder mystery in the classic style, with various different suspects all (viewed) together at the end as the detective puts his case, I didn't feel we were encouraged to play along in making sense of the evidence and guessing whodunnit.

Yet most striking is Baley's conclusion. He's a maverick loner on an alien world where he doesn't fit in. When he returns to Earth at the end, the suggestion is that his experience means he no longer fits in at home. A lot of classic science-fiction I've read is about maverick individuals, their will pitted against the wider, impersonal system. There's something of that here: in a final twist, Baley makes a decision not to punish one guilty party and to have framed someone connected to but not actually guilty of the murder. 

But that's not what Baley concludes here. He tells his superiors that the people of Solaria have given up,
"something worth more than atomic power, cities, agriculture, tools, fire, everything. [They've given up] The tribe, sir. Cooperation between individuals." (p. 195)

The analogy is to the scientific community, where peer review can point out faults and lead to better progress being made. But I'm struck by this rejection of the individual in favour of the collective. It's surely a rejection of elites living in seclusion and luxury in favour of something more equitable - even socialist.

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