Back in July, I attended Armadillocon 37, the annual literary science fiction convention held each summer in Austin. I went as a dealer, selling books by some of the featured authors and an assortment of graphic novels. Sales were okay and if I do it again next year, I'll have more table space and bring more actual science fiction books.
While I was there, I was reminded of the love/hate relationship I have with science fiction as a literary genre. Let me explain. I read a lot of science fiction books when I was young. All through grade school and college (and for a few years after), I read science fiction. But then, in the 1980s, my tastes started changing and I moved on to other genres. I've always had an appreciation for a really good science fiction story and for awhile, I had a pretty good working knowledge of the field. I knew who the major (and some of the minor) players were and the titles of their books, the award winners (Hugo and Nebula) and so on.
But the trouble was, I wasn't actually reading any sf of any kind. Oh, sure, there was the occasional novel here and there but a regular, steady, reading diet of science fiction? Not me. I have dozens and dozens of mostly vintage science fiction paperbacks on my bookshelves and whenever I'd finish a book of any kind, I'd always briefly consider reading a science fiction novel next, just as a change of pace. I would inevitably decide to go with something else, usually a crime/mystery thriller, a pulp oriented adventure or a work of non-fiction. But after being around a bunch of hard core science fiction fans and readers at the con, I decided that it was once again time to stick my toe into the sf waters.
I chose THE NAKED SUN by Isaac Asimov. It's a classic science fiction/detective novel, first published in 1957. The edition I read is the one pictured above, published by Lancer Books in 1966. A locked room, "impossible" murder has occurred on the planet Solaria, one of the Outer Worlds in which robots vastly outnumber humans. Because it's a world without crime, a detective from Earth, Elijah Baley, is sent to investigate. He's partnered with R. Daneel Olivaw, a robot with a human appearance.
On Solaria, Baley and Olivaw track clues and interview various possible suspects, any one of which could have murdered the slain scientist. At the novel's climax, Baley confronts all of the suspects, in classic murder mystery form, and explains exactly who did it. A guilty party is revealed but the real identity of the killer is not revealed until the very end of the book.
What makes this story work is the fact that Baley comes from a future Earth in which all of mankind lives in gigantic underground cities. To go up to the surface of Earth and be exposed to the "naked sun", is anathema to Baley and he suffers a very real phobia of the outdoors. However, on Solaria, he's forced to go outside a number of times in the course of his investigation and he gradually comes to terms with his fear.
There are only 20,000 humans on Solaria and people live in huge estates (equipped with numerous robots) on vast acreage. They are so spread out and isolated that actual, face-to-face contact with other humans, is abhorrent to them. The Solarians prefer instead to "view" others via a remote viewing technology (shades of Skype!) rather than "see" another human in person. Asimov neatly plays these two psychological aberrations against each other as Baley acclimates himself to the outer world while the Solarians begin to tolerate each other's physical presence.
Asimov wasn't a great writer in terms of style but he's certainly readable even if his prose isn't dazzling. Where he excelled was in ideas and concepts, such as the Three Laws of Robotics, rules which play a key part in NAKED SUN. This is at once a science fiction novel and a formal, whodunit mystery and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Of course, after I finished reading it, I immediately picked up a crime/mystery novel, KILL NOW, PAY LATER by Robert Terrall. But it's not a very long book and when I finish it, I might just pick up another science fiction novel. Stay tuned.