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Asimov’s Nightfall short story

  1. Apr 27, 2016 #1
    I recently read somewhere that this is considered one of the very best science fiction stories of all time, so I got a copy and read it. I have to say that I don’t see what all the fuss is about. POSSIBLE SPOILERS -

    First, Asimov created an alien world populated by beings that for all intents and purposes seemed like humans in a very humanlike society. This is rather farfetched, especially as I just finished reading What a Martian Looks Like, which suggests that any alien life would be so different from us as to be unrecognizable in many cases.

    Second, the whole story in Nightfall revolves around an impending very rare solar eclipse of the one sun out of six that is in the sky at the time. It will cloak the planet in darkness, something that the inhabitants have never experienced and which will cause widespread madness. But it seems like a somewhat advanced society - they have astronomers with telescopes and cameras and Asimov even mentions at one point the use of refrigerated transport vehicles. So you mean to say that they never invented light bulbs? True there was always one or more sun in the sky at any time, but even so they have buildings and the interiors would benefit from lighting.

    I was just wondering what others thought.
  2. jcsd
  3. Apr 27, 2016 #2


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    In Science Fiction, it's somewhat of a given that you have to give the author one thing. Let him have that and don't question it and if everything else in the story is compatible with it, then it's not to be taken as a problem. You've hit on the one thing for Nightfall.

    The rest of what you are perhaps overlooking is (1) the story was written in the fairly early days of SciFic when really good writing was rare and (2) Asimove in general, and this story in particular, is really good writing. I side totally w/ the critics who declare this one of the best SciFic stories ever.
  4. Apr 27, 2016 #3

    Simon Bridge

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    The story is trying a "what if" along the lines of "what if human society had never experienced total darkness - then suddenly had darkness thrust upon them?"
    A setup for that sort of thing would be pretty far-fetched... I think Asimov was trying to extrapolate from accounts of the effect of a solar eclipse on people who had never experienced one or only had them in folk memory. Even people familiar with indoor lighting (doesn't have to be a lightbulb) have been reported to have been quite shocked by a solar eclipse. But I think it is more about the Sun getting blocked out rather than the darkness itself.

    I think Asimov is generally overrated ... however, when someone says "X is considered one of the best Y of all time" you want to also ask, who is doing the considering, and what are their judgement criteria? It got a "best short story written prior to 1965" from the SF Writers Association ... so it's kinda like a Nebula award for before the nebulas existed. Their criteria was quality of writing rather than the science that goes into it.
  5. Apr 28, 2016 #4


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    I find that sometimes people confuse influential or novel with quality. Many works could be considered hugely influential, possibly inspiring entire genres for centuries to come, but they aren't necessarily better than a lot of what comes later (or even works at the time).

    The Lord of The Rings for example. Hugely influential, but is it really that well written? Are the characters and plot that complex? Are the books honestly better than thousands of other worlds of fantasy (many of which aren't derivative of the feudal/elves/dwarfs genre LOTR spawned)?

    I don't know if that's true in this case, though I have thought it with regards to other works by Asimov.
  6. Apr 28, 2016 #5
    I've seen works where they carefully laid out the reasons aliens wouldn't look like us. And then I went to the next site where they carefully laid out the reasons aliens would look like us. Before making positive statements either way it might be good to meet a few aliens first.
  7. Apr 28, 2016 #6
    Thinking about it, only very few lifeforms on Earth (primates) bear any resemblance to humans, most life forms are not even mammals.

    I remember 'Nightfall' from my Asimov addiction phase, thought it was quite good.
    The foundation trilogy is another good work based on human-like characters.
    My favourite Asimov yarn though is 'The last question'
  8. Apr 28, 2016 #7
    I've thought about it, I assure you. I still don't see it proven that this basic body design is a one-off. Nor have I seen it disproven. We had no aliens for comparison.
  9. Apr 28, 2016 #8


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    It wasn't the darkness that drove people mad, it was the view of the night sky, which no one has seen for generations. On top of that, their world was in the midst of a globular cluster and their night sky put ours to shame. It was having the reality of the universe thrust upon them, when up to then, it had just consisted of 6 stars.
  10. Apr 29, 2016 #9
    Yep, sensory overload. They burned their libraries to drive back the light of ten thousand suns. (Sorry, Moodys.)
  11. Apr 29, 2016 #10
    It seems it was both. There's the scene, with one weak sun left in the sky, where the psychologist tells the reporter to close the shade to experience the darkness and the reporter has a hard time of it. Also, the psychologist recalls a time he tried to enter a cave but had to run out in a hurry when the mouth of the cave started to recede from view.
  12. Apr 29, 2016 #11
    IMO, one of the things that Asimov did well was write allegorical stories - probably why he's considered one of the best sci fi authors of all time.

    Nightfall, while it is a story of a society dealing first with Chicken Little and then later with the Sky Falling, it's a story about how we refuse to see the dangers in front of us, how we as a society do nothing about it, even when we're presented with all of the evidence.
    e.g. "Global Warming" was apparently first calculated as a thing in 1896, and in 1930s and '40s was a topic in scientific circles (according to this link)
    It was widely enough known that it was fundamental cause in the film Soylent Green in 1973.

    I don't know if this was the actual inspiration for the story or the allegory he was trying to draw, but there is a good relationship there.

    Question: did you read the short story from '41 or the full novel from '90?
  13. Apr 29, 2016 #12
    The short story.
  14. Apr 29, 2016 #13
    Fair enough. I never read the short story. May have to go dig it up. The full novel is pretty good. I read it when it came out, and then again a few years ago, just to be sure I still liked it.
    The novel also has a preface that touches on how "human" the aliens are. I doubt the short story does.
    I recommend it. :)
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