Sunday, December 20, 2015

Astounding Science Fiction - The Naked Sun

Hers was a triangular face--rather broad at the cheekbones--which grew prominent when she smiled--and narrowing to a gentle curve past full lips to a small chin. Her head was not high above the ground. Baley judged her to be about five-feet-two in height. (This was not typical. At least not to Baley's way of thinking. Spacer women were supposed to lean toward the tall and stately.) Nor was her hair the Spacer bronze. It was light brown, tinging toward yellow, and moderately long. At the moment, it was fluffed out in what Baley imagined to be a stream of warm air. The whole picture was quite pleasing. 

Astounding Science Fiction - Oct, Nov and Dec 1956
cover artists Richard Van Dongen and
Frank Kelly Freas
A couple years ago I happened upon an old stack of Astounding Science Fiction magazines in a local comic book store. I browsed through them and discovered that three of them contained the full serialized novel of Isaac Asimov's The Naked Sun. And this for only a few dollars each! It was a no-brainer to take them home with me. Last weekend I had the opportunity to finally crack them open and read the novel in its entirety, It was pretty much what you'd expect from a classic Sci-Fi writer like Asimov, clear and swift story telling, compelling psychology, a dash of science, and a cracking-good puzzle. Oh yeah, and the random nerd flourishes that Asimov couldn't seem to prevent from popping up in his writing. For example, the Spacer babe in the above passage as having a "head not high above the ground" instead of just being petite. He was, after all, a scientist. I should also mention that this Spacer babe was also naked, which sent our hero Plainclothesman Elijah Baley into stuttering fits.

For anyone who doesn't know, The Naked Sun is the second in a series of Sci-Fi mysteries featuring Elijah Baley and R. Daneel Olivaw solving a seemingly impossible murder among an alien setting. They're Asimov's versions of locked-room mysteries in that the crimes seem to violate his famous Three Laws of Robotics. If you don't know what the Three Laws of Robotics are, my friend, you are woefully behind in your science fiction education.

The crime in this novel is the murder of a Dr. Rickain Delmarre on one of the Outer Worlds known as Solaris. The cool thing about Solaris is that the entire human population of the planet numbers about 20,000, give or take one or two (you know, what with the murders and all!) The robot population of Solaris is 200,000,000, or one human per ten thousand robots. Each human has been conditioned since birth to live alone amount his or her own estate on a parcel of land with a slew of robot servants. Communication is done through a means termed viewing, which is a sort of three dimensional "televised" process, so realistic that it's become a complete substitute for personal contact. In fact, residents of Solaris find personal human contact as horrific, or unthinkable. Yes, marriages are assigned and population is controlled by means of rare physical joining, but such things are deemed unspeakable in polite society. It's in this setting that Dr. Delmarre was murdered by blunt-force trauma, which means some human being (not a robot as that would violate the First Rule of Robotics) had to get near Delmarre. The only witness to the crime was his robot servant, which somehow violates the Second Rule of Robotics in that no robot can allow harm to come to a human. The only possible suspect is his wife Gladia Delmarre, who shared his estate. But how could she have done it? The Delmarre's have no children, and contact between the two of them was done only through viewing. The concept of marriage, as Earth knows it, is non-existent on Solaris.

As for Earth, Elijah Baley's home turf, well its inhabitants live in crowded "caves of steel" deep beneath the surface of the planet. The idea of dwelling on the surface is so far from day to day concept that most of the Earth's population have developed an agoraphobia that prevents them from functioning outside their overcrowded underground cities. So you have a study in extreme opposites with Earth and Solaris, which causes fits for our detective hero Elijah Baley and his robot partner Daneel Olivaw. Well, not for Olivaw since he's a robot, a highly programmed humanoid robot who could easily pass for human if not for being bound by the Three Laws of Robotics.

The novel is a lot of fun for mystery fans, as well as classic science fiction fans. I've yet to read anything by Asimov that wasn't enjoyable. This murder plays within the rules of Robotics, and along the way we get a study of Asimov's thoughts concerning over-population, robotics, psychology, and sociology. That and a handful of eccentric characters bound by their own human weaknesses and prejudices. In addition to the Asimov novel, the magazines also contain stories by Robert Silverberg, Poul Anderson, Algis Budrys and others whose work I'm not yet familiar with. All three of the issues were edited by John Campbell Jr. and the artwork throughout is appropriately retro for sci-fi nerds like me. I'm sure these later issues of science fiction mags are readily available to collectors and for reasonable prices. Combined I got these issues for less than what I would have paid for a new paperback copy of anything current in Barnes & Noble--parish the thought!

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