Tuesday, March 21, 2023
Casual Shorts & the ISFdb Top Short Fiction #21: Nightfall by Isaac Asimov
Asimov, Isaac. "Nightfall." Astounding Science-Fiction, September 1941.
This article is part of my attempt to read all the 155 stories currently (as of 1 November 2022) on the ISFdb's Top Short Fiction list. Please see the introduction and list of stories here. I am encouraging readers to rate the stories and books they have read on the ISFdb.
ISFdb Rating: 9.06/10
My Rating: 7/10
"Aton 77, director of Saro University, thrust out a belligerent lower lip and glared at the young newspaperman in a hot fury."
The planet Lagash has six suns, and in a few hours, when only one remains in the sky, an eclipse will plunge the planet into total darkness. This occurrence transpires every 2,049 years, and it appears that every 2,049 years, like clockwork, the people of Lagash destroy their civilization at the moment of eclipse.
Gathered in the University of Saro observatory is a group of scientists and a reporter who await the monumental event. A hideout has been built to preserve some citizens from the anticipated chaos, while the scientists remain in the enclosed building to record the event with their somewhat primitive instruments. Adding to the tension is a group of religious fanatics trying to break into the observatory, to sabotage the research as they believe this is truly the end of days. Yet even the rational men (yes, they are all men) fear the oncoming dark, as no one from Lagash has ever experienced total darkness, nor has anyone seen stars.
History has progressed at a somewhat slower pace on Lagash than it has on Earth. With the absence of the night sky, it is more difficult for astronomers to properly observe the celestial bodies, and we learn that their science discovered gravity late in the civilization's maturation. In addition, with the absence of darkness, Lagashians do not develop electric light, and yet they do have electricity, as revealed by the two astronomers who attempt to create artificial stars in a darkened dome. In no instance does it appear that Lagash is ahead of Earth technologically, so the implication is that darkness and the access to stars (visible access, at least), has greatly helped humans evolve. However, religion has evolved at an equal pace on both planets, so ironically the absence of the heavens has placed greater emphasis on eventually reaching them.
I have always enjoyed this story as well as the concept behind it. Asimov was truly a great thinker, and at the age of twenty-one had already developed such an advanced concept for 1941. As with many of his early stories, editor John W. Campbell Jr. helped the young Asimov develop his ideas, and apparently with the success of "Nightfall," increased the writer's pay.
One item in the story alludes me, and perhaps someone can clear this up for me. One sun remains in the sky, while the five others have set, presumably lighting up the opposite side of the planet. The eclipse is of the remaining star, plunging the entire planet into darkness. However, wouldn't the eclipse affect only this side of the planet? Yet the scientists maintain that the entire planet will plunge into darkness, and there is mention of other cities on the planet, so wouldn't those far enough away be spared the eclipse and the sight of the stars? Have I misread a detail in the story?
For more of this week's Wednesday's Short Stories, please visit Patti Abbott's blog.