Solaria, extreme social distancing

I have been an avid reader of Asimov’s works all my life. And I just remembered that he wrote about societies that practiced extreme social distancing – and I also remembered how grim and dystopian those descriptions were.

I’m recommending two of his books today. They aren’t predictions or “prophecies” about our predicament, but they will help put it in perspective.

The Naked Sun is the second book in Asimov’s Robot series, written in 1956. The protagonist is police detective Elijah Baley, who is assigned to investigate a murder that happened on the remote world called Solaria.

Solaria is a roughly Earth-sized planet that is home to twenty thousand estates, each owned and inhabited by one human being, maybe two. On each estate, thousands of robots do the work that needs to be done. People – I mean, the human beings – don’t move around, don’t meet in person. When they need company, they view each other through sophisticated 3D viewing devices (imagine FaceTime or Skype video on steroids). When the plot takes place, Solarians have been doing this for centuries, and even the thought of physical contact fills them with abhorrence. Even spouses, who supposedly live on the same estate, view each other most of the time. Seeing – which involves meeting in the same physical space, unlike viewing – happens maybe once a year, and is considered a necessary nuisance.

Detective Baley is from Earth. The Earth of these stories is very different. People live in vast underground cities (that have familiar names such as New York or Washington), but they are endless blocks of tiny living quarters. People are crammed together, and don’t even think of going outside, to the planet’s surface. When he arrives to Solaria, Baley has to conquer his fright and bewilderment as he needs to exist in the vast open spaces of the planet.

Our socially distanced confinement reminds me of both worlds. We keep away from each other and keep to the inside – being out on the street bears the risk of getting accidentally infected.

The other book, called Foundation and Earth, is the late closing piece of Asimov’s Foundation series (it was first published in 1986). It’s very different from the previous books – it tells the tale of a quest to find the long-forgotten Earth, and it isn’t entirely different from folk tales and fantasy sagas such as the Lord of the Rings. It is also interesting because it connects the Galactic Empire/Foundation world to that of the Robots.

We are more than twenty millennia after the Robot stories (and even the Robot stories happen several centuries after the present time). The protagonist, Golan Trevize, and his companions, come across Solaria, one of the fifty ancient worlds that were populated with the help of robots. They visit Solaria – where social distancing was taken to the extreme. In the millennia that passed since the story of The Naked Sun, the human inhabitants no longer need to be physically together to have children. With the help of the robots, they genetically engineered themselves to be hermaphrodites. And they also believe that it’s paramount to be completely isolated from the rest of the universe – they quickly and efficiently get rid of any visitors (that is, they kill their guests).

I’m not concluding anything from this – but I thought I’d share how the current times reminded me of these two books. They also make great reading (they’re Asimov after all). And I can’t imagine you’re not thinking about where the world will go after this.

Strange as it may sound, happy curling up on your sofas, and happy reading!

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