Thursday, 5 May 2011

Review: Nightfall

"Nightfall" by Isaac Asimov (1941)
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?
The planet Lagash is an odd planet.  Instead of orbiting one sun, it winds its complicated path around six stars that rise in fall in such a pattern that the entire planet is always illuminated by one of them.  It's a world that never knows night and where darkness is a strange, fearful thing that is only found in the caves that everyone shuns.  It's also a world with a bizarre archaeological record that shows the Lagashian civilisation self-destructs every 2,049 precisely, leaving behind nothing but the ruins of burned-out cities.

Reporter Theremon 762  is writing a story about the scientists at the Saro City observatory who believe that they've solved the mystery.  Using archaeology, psychology, and astronomy, the scientists believe that once every 2,000 years an eclipse occurs when only one sun is in the sky, plunging the world into an unaccustomed darkness that drives the people mad with claustrophobia; destroying all civilisation.  Hoping to break the cycle of destruction, the scientists plan to record the coming event and preserve the knowledge, along with some survivors fortified in a bunker with crude candles, so that the truth will not be lost.  Unfortunately, the fanatical Cult of the Stars are convinced that the scientists are committing blasphemy and as the darkness starts to fall, raises a mob to destroy the observatory.  Will civilisation again be destroyed?  And what are the mysterious "Stars"?

"Nightfall" is one of the most anthologised science fiction short stories, appearing no less than 48 times including six of Asimov's own collections.  Not surprisingly, it was also one of Asimov's favourite stories.  I was going to qualify this with "that he'd written", but we're talking about Isaac Asimov.  It's also his best written story with far more description and characterisation than Asimov usually allows.  The characters stand out as individuals with their own quirks, fears, and motives rather than just props for one of Asimov's debates or logic puzzles.  There's good conflict at the opening with some nice foreshadowing as the scientists bristle at the presence of the reporter who has spent months making them a laughing stock now wanting to cover their attempts to record the darkness–and spare their credibility if nothing happens.  Theremon is well handled, if a bit cinematic; as if Asimov was channelling James Cagney, but the psychologist Sheerin 501 stands in good contrast to the other scientists and Asimov gives him credible reasons for talking to the reporter.

Though rising above Asimov's usual schoolboy prose, "Nightfall" still has its shortcomings.  It's very obviously a stacked deck of a story with the outcome a classic example of begging the question.  Though Asimov has a academic background, he brings no insights to his group of scientists as opposed to those that C S Lewis did in his science fiction.  But the worst is Asimov cultists, who are the coarsest stereotypes of religious fanatics from a man who famously regarded science as having a monopoly on reason, religion as pure anti-reason, and in the last decade of his life was convinced that the Moral Majority were going to throw him in prison. However, "Nightfall" stands as an unusual Asimov story; one where the ideas are not particularly interesting, but where the story telling excels.

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