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 hereI 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.


Todd Mason said...

I don't think you've misread anything, but will have to go back to the story, which I haven't read for about half a century. (Algis Budrys once noted that no one on the planet had apparently ever been a the bottom of a well, or other structure which would give them a view of the blackness of the sky when seen thus even in daylight.)

All ASTOUNDING stories (at least in JWC's era, and perhaps earlier) were rated by a reader's poll (for which Campbell admitted to putting his thumb on the scale from time to time), which got the writers a bit of a bonus after the fact of publication. ("The Analytical Laboratory" poll continues in ANALOG to this day).

Asimov was more than a bit off-put over the decades when people would tell him how that early effort was his best Ever, something that such other writers (and presumably not they alone) as Jorge Luis Borges, Theodore Sturgeon and Robert Bloch were pestered with as well, with their best-known early stories ("El hombre de las esquinas rosadas"--usually translated as "Streetcorner Man", "Microcosmic God" and "Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper" respecitvely)...he grew philosophical about that, eventually.

Todd Mason said...

Both the film versions of "Nightfall" that I'm aware of, fwiw, are atrocious; I'm not the story's biggest fan, but it is Vastly better than those two small-budget theatrical releases.

Casual Debris said...

Thanks Todd. The darkness & light from a cave is actually addressed in the story, as some brave soul experimented with trying to walk deeper & deeper into a cave, until anxiety got the better of him. There are, however, other holes in the story I did not bother bringing up. I'm aware he expanded the story to a novel & perhaps those details are addressed there, but I am not that interested in reading the longer version.

I don't love Asimov as a writer, but as a thinker, though must keep in mind the period in which was thinking (at least in terms of fiction). I've always liked this story, though the fact that all the scientists are so easily upset and red-faced shouting all over the place is quite comical & nearly has me siding with the cultists.

TracyK said...

You have inspired me to read this story, and today I purchased an ebook edition of NIGHTFALL AND OTHER STORIES. On Amazon, you can actually read Nightfall in the preview but I wanted to get the other stories too, and Asimov's comments on the story.

Todd Mason said...

Though what looking at the sky from the bottom of a well will do is make it clear that the sky itself is dark when seen from certain limited sections (though it does have to be a very narrow view of the sky!). Yes, the melodrama of it is one of the reasons it's not a great story, by me, even when reading it as a kid...such Asimov stories as "Hostess", "Dreaming is a Private Thing" and not a few others are Much better.

Asimov the person, sadly, was a bit of a mixed bag, even by the standards of humanity, particularly when dealing with women he found attractive.

NIGHTFALL AND OTHER STORIES is a pretty good introduction to his short stories, Tracy...and Asimov and I agree it includes some better work (as well as some minor fiction, including some just-OK joke stories). It was, essentially, Well, I haven't ever included "Nightfall" in my collections, so here it is with a range of other more recent work.

Casual Debris said...

Tracy, I'd be interested in knowing what you think. But yes, as Todd mentions he has better stories. I find all his collections include a few forgettable joke stories (though many authors of the period produced collections suffering the same fate).

George Morgan said...

I met Asimov a few times, and at one of his science fiction weekends at Lake Mohonk Mountain House in New Palz NY I asked him if he had actually worked out how the planet could experience total darkness from the simultaneous eclipse of all six suns. He replied that he did not actually know and had not let that get in the way of an interesting concept. I suppose that the planet would have to have had at least six extremely large moons that would cast a shadow over the entire planet, not just portions of the planet, on the occasion when all lined up simultaneously with the six suns.

Casual Debris said...

Thank you George, I suppose we need to fill in the gaps that Asimov left in the story.

Todd Mason said...

Oh, and Robert Silverberg wrote the expansion of the story into a novel, in conference with Asimov I'm sure to some degree, but it's Silverberg's tribute to his youthful reading and Asimov's influence.

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