Welcome to the second Summer of Asimov, where we'll be examining the third of the so-called Big Three Golden Age Science-Fiction authors. We've already covered the technologist Arthur C. Clarke and the political futurist Robert A. Heinlein, so now we get to the philosophical fantasist, Isaac Asimov. Covering Asimov adequately over one summer proved to be a daunting task, especially with the pandemic, so I've had to split it into two. This year, we'll mostly be covering the Foundation series, in anticipation of the hopefully-as-good-as-it-looks television series coming out later in the year (which I will of course be reviewing). So sit back, relax, and enjoy some vintage, epic science-fiction from one of the grandmasters of the genre.
It was Asimov's first cover story, I believe
The Science-Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (the SFWA) is the premiere professional organization of speculative fiction writers in the world, responsible for, among other things, the annual Nebula awards. So when its members had to pick the greatest science-fiction story written before they were formed, it had to be an incredible piece of work. As you've probably guessed, they picked "Nightfall" by Isaac Asimov, a story the fledgling grandmaster had penned in graduate school and which helped launch him to fame under the guidance of John W. Campbell.
Campbell and Asimov were discussing a Ralph Waldo Emerson quote when the idea for "Nightfall" seeded itself in their brains. The quote--"If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore, and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God!"--is pretty close to a one-line summary of the story, but Campbell dissented from Emerson's conclusion, positing that men, rather than seeing God in the heavens, would go utterly mad. Asimov ran with this central question to form the basis of his narrative, which--spoiler alert--seems to side with Campbell's interpretation.
"Nightfall" is set on the planet of Lagash, which lies in a stable orbit around six different suns. The planet lives in perpetual daylight, but once every two millenia, the suns conspire with Lagash's hidden moon to blanket the entire world in darkness. As one such eclipse nears, scientists and cultists both predict the nightfall, but the public, as personified in the guise of the acerbic reporter Theremon, remains skeptical, viewing the intellectual battle between science and mysticism as little more than an amusing diversion. However, when the skies begin to darken, it becomes clear that the night is coming, and the only question that remains is how society will react to the disappearance of their suns and the emergence of the stars, whatever they may be.
Imagine not knowing what stars are and then seeing them for the first time
Though written pretty early in Asimov's career, this is a refined thought experiment that reads at least as good as his later works of short fiction. He sets it up as a battle between science and faith, but rather than tackle it from that more predictable angle, he takes great care to approach it from a realistic direction, focusing more on the social, technological, and psychological results of mankind evolving on such a strange world. There is even a part in the story where the characters discuss the possibility of a planet like ours, arguing that there would be no way for life to exist on a surface that spends half its life in shadow.
Lagash also houses a fairly advanced civilization, with their only technological blind spot being lighting technology. The people aren't unfamiliar with darkness or enclosed spaces, but these things are relegated to terrifying carnival rides where the novelty of pitch blackness is rumored to have driven some men mad. For this reason, the scientists are unwilling to fully dismiss the cultists' claim that the stars will bring insanity and death to Lagash, even offering a plausible explanation for why people would set their cities aflame in a desperate search for illumination.
Still, the cultists don't take too kindly to the scientists, believing them to be blasphemers and heretics undeserving of the stars. They believe that they alone have the right to chronicle the nightfall, and as the last sun starts to die, they attack the observatory where Theremon and the researchers are stationed. They don't succeed, but it is clear that some of the scientists are losing their nerves, their rational demeanor cracking under the pressure of the dusk. The ending is particularly dark--no pun intended--especially for Asimov. The sight of the stars is more than most can handle, and the story ends with a chilling image of the city below starting to flicker and glow with the predicted fires of madness.
This review isn't for the novel, which I haven't read (yet)
What makes this such a compelling and important science-fiction story is how diligent Asimov is with the details, not letting them bog down his tale but using them to explore the premise he's created in a startlingly honest way. This is sci-fi done right, and any writer worth a damn should bow down in respect for what Asimov accomplished here. I'd also be remiss if I failed to mention this fun little study from Cornell University that examines the scientific plausibility of Lagash (or Kalgash, as it is called in the 1990 novel by Asimov and Robert Silverberg), which concludes that the orbital mechanics outlined by Asimov are within the boundaries of known physics.
Above that, there's an odd timelessness to the story, which reads like a modern fairy tale or archetypal myth. Sure, it contains Asimov's witty wordplay and gentle voice, but it also captures a very distinct view of humanity that trancends the boundaries of simple sci-fi, raising it to the pedestal of what we should all agree should be considered "literature." I'm not just writing this as a lifelong fan of Asimov with rose-colored fanboy glasses on, because I have tried to find flaws and look at this through less subjective lenses, only to come up painfully short. I could maybe nitpick it for being a little repetitive, but even that's a stretch.
I also have to admit this is remarkable even for Asimov, who is one of the Big Three grandmasters of the Golden Age of Science-Fiction. I can think of few short stories from the Twentieth Century that are as good, and I daresay, even if you don't read any other stories from Asimov, you absolutely need to read "Nightfall." It's free online (here), so you have no real excuse for failing to give it an hour of your time.
-e. magill 9/9/2021
SPECIAL THANKS TO MY PATRONS: