the Little Red Reviewer

Nightfall, by Isaac Asimov

Posted on: January 5, 2013

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Isaac Asimov (1920 – 1992) was one of the first science fiction authors I read. I started with his Foundation books, moved onto the Robot books, and leapt into the fray from there. And Dr. Asimov is far more than just a science fiction writer. He wrote droves of non-fiction as well, eventually being involved in over 500 books of both fiction and non-fiction.  His science fiction is utilitarian yet deep, showing a fascinating view of the human condition, yet easily grasped. After all these years, it’s had to believe I’ve never read Asimov’s famous short story Nightfall, which in the 1960s was voted the best science fiction short story ever written by the SFWA. The original short story Nightfall was written in 1941, and shortly before Asimov’s death he and Robert Silverberg adapted it into a full length novel.

asimov_isaac_nightfall

Nightfall (short story) by Isaac Asimov

originally published in 1941

where I got it: listened!  download the story from Escape Pod, here

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Lagash  is a planet that never has a sunset, never sees stars, never lights a fire to keep the dark of night at bay.  You see, Lagash has not one or two suns, but six that cross its sky. This is a civilization that has never been in the dark,  never worried about inventing light bulbs, electricity, gas lamps or candles. They barely have an understanding of the burning pitch torch.

Until now.  Every two thousand years or so the stars are aligned just right so that only Lagash’s dimmest star, Beta, remains in the sky as the planet’s dark companion slowly rotates around, causing a total solar eclipse.

When darkness falls, what will happen? The archaeological records show that most civilizations reached a peak, and then collapsed shortly after each eclipse that hits like clockwork.  But this time things will be different. In the capital city, a percentage of the population waits safely in an underground shelter with all the records and knowledge of Lagash, prepared to wait out the worst and repopulate the planet if necessary.

In the observatory, Lagash’s best scientists (and one annoying newspaper reporter) are readying themselves for the event of a lifetime.  Some are sure this is the end of the world, others are more optimistic, and there are plenty of guesses of what will happen.  Will the world be enveloped in total and utter darkness? Will there maybe be a dozen or two strange  pinpoints of light in the sky? Will the populace lose their minds as claustrophobia and other unrealized fears take hold? Are the religious cultists right, or is this 6 hour eclipse nothing to worry about?

(Having just “survived” the Mayan Apocalypse, this was a surprisingly timely read. I didn’t expect anything to happen on Dec 21,  but there was no escaping our own “cultists” who were plenty happy to spread rumors  and take advantage of  gullible people.)

And don’t worry, there is plenty of science in Nightfall as well: There’s a fascinating and easy to digest discussion of the laws of gravitation, and the scientists even hypothesize about how easy their mathematical calculations would be if Lagash only had one sun.  But how silly is that, a planetary system with only one sun! Asimov is enlightening and educating the reader of the complications of stellar mathematics, while at the same time gently making light of the situation. You’ll smile, I promise.

I actually feel really bad for the population of Lagash. without darkness, they have no constellations, no mythological connections to the heavenly bodies, no romances of moonlit rendezvouses, no views of the galaxy or nebulae or the borealis. They don’t even have the vocabulary for the starlit evenings that got me into science fiction in the first place.

Nightfall is an easy story to follow. The characters aren’t incredibly deep (and that was never Asimov’s thing anyways), but it’s OK, because the idea of the story is more about how society reacts to something they’ve never seen before, as opposed to singular individuals. This is the first time I’ve listened to something this long, and the narrator, Stephen Eley did a great job giving the different characters different voices and vocal mannerisms.  Nightfall is available in many, many “best of” anthologies, so a print version should be pretty easy to find.

I recently read Mark Hodder’s new novel, A Red Sun Also Rises. Not to spoil any of the surprises, but the alien planet in that book is also in a stellar system of multiple suns, and the planet rarely experiences total darkness. Makes me wonder if Nightfall doesn’t have a special place in Hodder’s heart.

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21 Responses to "Nightfall, by Isaac Asimov"

I only read the first half of your review because I just bought Nightfall, the novel, a couple of days ago and am hoping to get to it sometime soon here. I should probably read the short story first but I think I’m going to wait until afterwards so that all of the story is fresh to me. I was so impressed with the Asimov/Silverberg collaboration in The Positronic Man that I have high hopes for this one.

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you loved their Positronic Man! I came across the novel when I was a kid, and ignored it, because I had no idea who Robert Silverberg was. If only I’d grabbed it then!

I don’t think it matters if you read the short story first or the novel first. Let me know how the novel is!

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I will. And yes, the Positronic Man was great. If you like any of Asimov’s robot short stories then this longer one is sure to please. It would be an interesting one to read, now that I think about it, and compare with the novel Frankenstein that Allison wrote about in her guest post as both examine the idea of what it is to exist, only in different ways.

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I’ve taught “Nightfall” a few times in my science fiction class. Once I made the mistake of prefacing the story by telling my (college) students that it was voted best SF story ever and to reflect on whether it deserved the title after they’d finished reading. It must say something about human nature, but that semester I had student after student say they hated it, that the science was bad, the plot implausible, the characters unrelatable, etc. It was as though knowing other people had thought it was amazing gave them license to find fault with it. It was kind of strange. Since then, I haven’t mentioned the story’s critical acclaim until after they’ve read it, and most tend to agree that it’s a remarkable piece.

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what a fascinating experience! I knew I should have taken more writing classes in college! Funny that they had that reaction, I find the characters very relatable, especially the newspaper reporter Theramon. I also found the science and plot line to be completely plausible. But then again, you’ve got to have some ability for suspension of disbelief to enjoy a story involving a planet that has 6 suns.

Was it a science fiction class that you were presenting this in, or something more along the lines of an American Literature class?

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Yes, it was science fiction. Kind of odd. Some students just what to challenge authority no matter what.

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If you can find them there are a whole whack (that’s the scientific term) of short stories read by Asimov himself, where he does impressions of all the characters as well, from ancient computers to little girls, well worth the trouble!

I haven’t read the short story but read the full length novel that was written with Robert Silverburg and enjoyed it immensely.

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Sweet! do you remember where you found all that audio? How fun, to hear these stories in the master’s own voice! :)

Silverberg and Asimov working together, that is two of the very greats, doing great things. I’ll have to get to that novel, sooner rather than later!

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Well, yes, but I got it from my public library when I was about 17, over twenty years ago, sooo.. yeah… sorry. The only clue I can give you is this: http://www.amazon.ca/Isaac-Asimov-Himself-Complete-Stories/dp/0945353898

The set I got from the library had about 12 cassette tapes, though and there was more than 5 stories for sure. Hope that helps. He has an amazing voice, so its worth tracking down, IMHO.

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I read the intro and end of your review as I want to give this a listen too and didn’t want to spoil anything for myself. Ever since I watched Pitch Black on the SciFi channel years and years ago, I have been fascinated with the idea of world that would rarely, if ever, experience night. How would that affect the wildlife, civilization, and eventually space exploration. I look forward to reading what Asimov does with the scenario.

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The wildlife I’m sure would evolve around it, but imagine living on a planet with no darkness. . . and someone invents a rocket to go to space, and suddenly there is immense, never ending darkness. could a person handle that kind of shock?

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I’ve only read Asimov’s I, Robot – which I greatly enjoyed – but I’ve added several of his other works to my TBR list. He was a formidable sci-fi writer.

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I Robot is one of my favorites of his!

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This has always been one of my favorite of Asimov’s novels. So glad you enjoyed it!!

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i can’t believe it took me this long to experience Nightfall, and now I want to read the full length novel too!

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I read the short story last year and really liked it. Like you, I sought out the X Minus One adaptation and it’s really worth a listen.

I’ve read the extended novel years ago and don’t recall much about it. I do think the short story was better.

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I know very little about the novel – I know the names of the suns were changed, and that the action moves around the planet more, instead of just being at the observatory. I’m sure the novelization is a little more politically correct?

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Small world – I also heard this via Escape Pod, years and years ago!

Good story, but the one thing that bugged me was (SPOILER WARNING)…

iirc the characters were planning to ride out nightfall in a survival shelter? It seriously bugged me that they mentioned bringing along talented (male) scientists, etc… plus women, in order to propagate the species. No concern for your wives, daughters, sisters, and neighbours? No concern for the women’s talents?

Aha, found the quote. It seems to be one guy making a wisecrack, which makes it a bit less bad:

” ‘What kind of good am I around there?’ Sheerin spread his palms in comical resignation. ‘A psychologist isn’t worth his salt in the Hideout. They need men of action and strong, healthy women that can breed children. Me? I’m a hundred pounds too heavy for a man of action, and I wouldn’t be a success at breeding children. So why bother them with an extra mouth to feed? I feel better over here.'”

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I remember being assigned the short story in either late elem. school or early JHS, then reading the full length novelization shortly after. I remember almost no detail, but enjoyed both of them.

If you’re curious, one of the small plot points in the new Benford – Niven Bowl of Heaven is the lack of night in the Bowl. It drives the human interlopers bonkers.

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What an intriguing premise! I love the idea of a society that has no concept of night.

Oh, these sci fi blogging events are so bad for my To Be Read list…or good, however you want to look at it!

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