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A post-pandemic society of the future: Asimov’s The naked sun

Posted on the 18 May, 2021 at 1:41 pm Written by in Books

What an amazing author and scientist Isaac Asimov was. I have re-read his book The naked sun, a science fiction novel written in 1956.

In this short book, 191 pages, Asimov manages to combine 1) a detective story, 2) an exploration of artificial intelligence and human interaction («the laws of robotics»), and (3) a portrait of a postpandemic/postcrisis society where human contact is looked at with fear. This last aspect has gone unnoticed.

In this society, you can «view» someone, by means of technology, from afar – but «seeing» them, directly, is a horror, or as if we would expose genitals to each other. Seeing people in real life is restricted to very close contacts and special situations. People have become hermits, each in their own castle. This society is located on the fertile planet Solaria, colonized by emigrants from Earth long ago, having developed into a «hygienic» land owner world. The citizens are few, compared to the area of the planet, so each citizen has a huge estate, and lives from this «estate economy», by means of robots doing the work – 30 000 robots per citizen, we are told (no problem with Asimov’s imagination).

Here, each in their huge estate, they rule as local kings and queens (both are portrayed). Presumably without much social class divide (at least, this plays no role in the book).

So, if we imagine that the current pandemic is not the last, and that humanity will have to adapt – here is one interesting but also quite sad telling of the future story, leading to personal isolation plus  technology or robot work. However, Asimov does not leave us depressed.

Here is the attempt, at the back, to summarize the book.


Yet Asimov also introduces a theme 4) already in the title of the book: The naked sun. The main person, the detective growing up on Earth, has a fear of open spaces, and of seeing the naked sun, or the sky. At the end of the book he overcomes his fear. The extreme isolation of the castle-citizens of Solaria, and the anxiety of the tunnel-living people from Earth, can be overcome. The author has a trick up his sleeve. I think this qualifies to «the very best indeed». What a mind, and author.

Even if Asimov is sometimes classified as a tech oriented writer and a natural sciences type of researcher /author, there is no doubt whatsoever, in this book, that cultural and social constructions play a large role, including social roles and social psychology, that are very clearly displayed in the text. These cross-disciplinary areas are exactly where Asimov excels – in my view.  The “robots, mainly” view of Asimov is far too narrow.

Although Asimov was still a fairly young man (36 years) when The naked sun was written, he had already tasted success, especially through The Foundation trilogy, and he writes with confidence, although very economically, this was still a novel that should appeal to the action-seeking book reader and not go too far in depth. Kiosk literature, but clearly punching way beyond its class.

The Naked Sun was the third volume in his “robot series” starting with I, robot, a few years before. The cover below illustrates the need to get attention, at the time. Especially for this new “controversial” science fiction litterature.

This how this somewhat controversial book was presented at the back cover:


Why could Asimov be so “assertive” and clear in his plot, in The naked sun? It was not only due to the two former volumes in the “Robot” series. It was mainly that the Foundation trilogy had now started to gain well-deserved attention.

The Foundation trilogy, written a few years before, makes the same basic points as The naked sun.

The Foundation trilogy is wider and much more epic than the robot series. Much like Star Wars, later.This is how it was presented, in my slightly later UK edition (1967).

In Foundation, volume one, we have, first, a galactic civilization that faces breakdown – yet some of it manages to survive, as an outpost in the galaxy, mainly for technology reasons.

Next, this “first foundation” renaissance civilization manages to overcome regional barbaric forces, and expand, but is then faced by a “human mutant”, overturning all expectations.

Finally, in the third volume, Asimov leads the way towards a more mysterious “second foundation”, which is socially and psychologically oriented, more than technically. Only through the combination of the two foundations is civilization regained.

It is written somewhat “naively”, using the words and conceptions of its time, but it still gives food for thought. I have never understood why it did not become a film or series, since the plot and background arguments are in many ways better than Star Wars, not to speak of Game of Thrones, et al.

PS – There is now a “teaser” for a new Foundation series, from Apple TV. Great – but so far I am not so impressed. The trick of the tail, in this story, is the sociological overview, not the dramatis personae. But we’ll see.