Robot See, Human View

Elijah Baley and Daneel Olivaw are together again in The Naked Sun. It’s a few months after the events of Caves of Steel, and Baley, now promoted to a “C-6” has been called to Washington DC, to meet with Undersecretary Albert Minnim. There has been a murder on the planet of Solaria, the first murder in the planet’s history, and Baley’s deductive presence has been specifically requested. Earth’s government sees this as a wonderful opportunity to actually have an Earthman receive first-hand knowledge of Spacer’s strengths and weaknesses, rather than relying on rumor and conjecture. Baley sees this as a terrifying, panic-inducing development. It is made clear that Baley is not being given a choice. In fact, an interstellar craft is waiting to convey him to Solaria immediately. (This is probably for the best, as it doesn’t give Baley time to dread the trip itself!)

Upon his arrival, Baley is surprised by his old partner, R. Daneel Olivaw, whose presence during the investigation was a pre-requisite for the planet Aurora’s assistance in having Baley sent in. On the journey to their temporary residence, Daneel is able to share some information about the planet with Baley, though he knows as little as Baley about the crime they have been called to investigate. Solaria’s population is rigidly controlled. Their 20,000 humans and 200,000,000 robots. (That’s right – two hundred million robots!) The people are scattered on

Same scene a few minutes later!

large (hundreds of acres) estates throughout the planet. Being so spread out necessitated the building of truly spectacular communication technology. You can “view” anyone else on the planet at any time and it’s like being in the same room with them. To an extent. In fact, the ever more brilliant and impressive viewing abilities created a taboo among the people of Solaria to personal presence, or “seeing” as they call it.  Baley believes himself to be meeting with their host, Head of Security Gruer, in person and is shocked when he seemingly disappears after providing them with specifics of the murder.

We get an excellent example of the Solarian ideas of “viewing” and “seeing” when Baley and Olivaw interview the victim’s wife, Gladia. When first contacted, Gladia is in the shower, drying off. When she gets out of the shower, she thinks nothing of Baley and Olivaw “viewing” her nude. Later in the conversation, however, she has this to say about her relationship with her husband:

“We were married. But I had my quarters and he had his. He had a very important career which took much of his time and I have my own work. We viewed each other whenever necessary.” (Kindle location 1192)

A different scene, but again from the book!

In Solarian society, it turns out, marriages are arranged, appointments are made for “seeing”, and ‘children’ is a dirty word. As you can imagine, this creates an interesting sociological conundrum for Baley, used to the overcrowded cities of Earth. This taboo about seeing also makes the mystery of the murder far more complex. Everyone is in agreement that the victim was “a good Solarian” and would never consent to SEE anyone but his wife, therefore she must be the killer. However, she was found unconscious near the body (by robots) mere minutes after the crime and there was no weapon to be found. Who then, could the killer be and how did he or she accomplish it?

Once again, the mystery itself is not all that complicated. The seasoned mystery buff will have at least an inkling of the means fairly quickly, if motive takes a bit longer. It is the unique cultural quirks of the Solarians, and their effect on Baley, that are the real interests in The Naked Sun. After all, Solaria is practically the exact opposite of Earth. Where Elijah’s Earth cities are enclosed underground, Solarian homes glory in expansive space. Where Baley regularly comes into direct contact with family, friends, and strangers on a daily basis, Solarian have trouble

Uhhh….I don’t even….I have no idea.

being in the same room with their spouses. The people of Earth gather for their meals in community kitchens with hundreds of others while Solarians eat their robot-prepared meals in solitude (though they may VIEW with others while dining). The people of Earth fight against robot intrusion on their homes and livelihoods while Solarians revel in the leisure their 10,000 to one robot society. These polar differences don’t go unnoticed by Baley, who realizes that Solaria and Earth share the same fate due to their relative excesses.

Throughout the book Baley challenges his own agoraphobia while he challenges his hosts’ anthropophobia. When he finally insists on being allowed to SEE his witnesses, it forces him to travel in the open. I’m hoping to see the result of his subsequent epiphany realized in the next book, Robots of Dawn. Which, if you’ll excuse me for ending a bit abruptly, I think I’ll get started on now!

Captain Future Living in the Past

When I created my Hugo novel spreadsheet earlier this week – yes, of course there’s a spreadsheet! If I ever start a project without first creating some sort of spreadsheet or database to track it than there is something seriously wrong and someone needs to get me to a doctor, fast! Anyway, when I created my Hugo novel spreadsheet earlier this week, I forgot to scroll down on the Wikipedia page to the “Retro Hugo” nominees and winners. Oops! That meant that I missed several earlier novels so I had to go back and add them. I surprised to find a couple of the oldest (1946) were available for the Kindle and as soon as I saw the cover (and $2.99 price tag) of Red Sun of Danger by Edmund Hamilton (writing as Brett Sterling) I knew it would be the next one I would read. There’s something about ridiculous pop art of the 1940s and 1950s that I love. Despite the whole, damsel-in-distress thing there’s an inherent goofiness that speaks to me. It’s perhaps one of the reasons the sci-fi covers of the 1980s and 1990s turned me off so much, with their wide shots of planets and distant ships; where was the danger? The romance? I mean, look at this thing!

How could you not want to read that?! I mean, really? What could possibly be happening? Some sort of dragon is attacking a robot while Jane of the Jungle cowers in the background. What does any of that have to do with a red sun? And who is Captain Future? I was psyched! I did some quick “research” by looking up Captain Future on Wikipedia (this was #18 after all, I didn’t want to go in blind) and then I started reading.

Captain Future is Curtis Newton, born to a pair of scientists living on the moon. Together with their friend and colleague Simon Wright, they built a giant robot (Grag) and a shape-shifting android (Otho). They also transplanted Simon Wright’s brain from his aging body into a box with lenses to see and magnetic means of locomotion. As with any good hero story, Curtis’ parents are killed and Grag, Otho, and Simon “The Brain” Wright (soon to be known collectively as “The Futuremen”) raise him on the moon. Curtis is super-intelligent, athletic and the all-around perfect human specimen and actually wants to use this surplus of awesome to help people, anonymously. Captain Future is born.

Our story starts when the colonists of the distant planet Roo threaten to secede from the System Government, a problem because the planet provides 90% of the vitron (a substance that provides long life) to the System. Were the secession to succeed, prices for vitron would be driven up and the entire System might collapse. It seems the native Roons, peaceful co-habitants for nearly a decade, have suddenly begun attacking the colonists and the colonists are blaming the government for not being able to stop it. The President calls upon Captain Future and the Futuremen, as well as the scientists who discovered vitron, to go to Roo and discover who’s behind the obvious plot to monopolize vitron.

What follows is the standard series of cliff-hangy chapters and ridiculous adventures you’d expect. There are “atom-gun” shootouts, giant worms, paralyzing spiders, toxic flowers, and the “night-dragons” seen pictured above. (I have to admit, as a huge fan of John Scalzi, the night-dragons gave me a serious case of squee as I imagined them leaving Roo after the events of this book and heading to Skalandarharia!) It’s as predictable and cheesy as you could want. Check out the inflated language and over-use of adverbs endemic of the style and period:

Quord was tearing the weapon away from Newton, and Otho could not shoot because Captain Future was between him and the Venusian.

Newton rallied his dizzied faculties to avert the tragedy. Quord already had the butt of the gun and his finger was tightening on its trigger. Dazedly, Captain Future lunged forward, twisting the Venusian’s arm around at the moment he pulled the trigger. (Kindle location 1876)

At the same time, there’s an obvious parallel to be drawn to the treatment of the Native Americans (indeed any indigenous people) by European settlers and pioneers. The culture clash that can so easily occur when no one bothers to take the time to learn about each other is all there in the “superstition” (involving Kangas, of course) the criminals use to incite the Roons to violence. It’s not subtle. And, thankfully, it’s generally a positive message as the government refuses to even consider genocide (you never know so soon after WWII!) “It’s utterly against System Government policy to massacre the native inhabitants of this world.” (Kindle location 845)

While a surprise that something so obviously pulp was nominated for a Hugo, it’s a good reminder that even the silliest of stories can have something to say. I truly enjoyed my introduction to Captain Future. Wikipedia mentions that a movie was in the works at sometime, and while IMDb lists is simply as “in development” I sincerely hope that it will one day come to fruition. The world could stand to learn a little something from Captain Future and the past.

Bechdel Score: 1 of 3