Saturday, January 2, 2010

Isaac Asimov: January 2, 1920--April 6, 1992

Isaac Asimov's short story "Nightfall" is one of the best in SF. It's also been his curse for he has said on a number of occasions that it is discouraging to find that one's best was written shortly after one began writing and never was able to match it or surpass it in 5 decades. Asimov published his first short story "Marooned off Vesta" in 1939 and "Nightfall" in 1941. In 1964, the Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA) voted it the "best short science fiction story of all time."

While I had known vaguely that the germ of the short story had come from an essay by Emerson, it still was a surprise, if not a shock, to encounter it as I did, as a course reading assignment. Emerson's essay "Nature," which was published in 1836, opens with this paragraph that follows Emerson' s "Introduction."

"To go into solitude a man needs to retire as much from his chamber as from society. I am not solitary whilst I read and write, though nobody is with me. But if a man would be alone, let him look at the stars. The rays that come from those heavenly worlds will separate between him and what he touches. One might think the atmosphere was made transparent with this design, to give man, in the heavenly bodies, the perpetual presence of the sublime. Seen in the streets of cities, how great they are! 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 which had been shown! But every night come out these envoys of beauty, and light the universe with their admonishing smile."

Asimov, of course, turns it around. Instead of inspiring people to "believe and adore; and preserve for many generations," the sight of the stars and darkness for the first time in a thousand years creates panic and mass destruction, which brings down civilization and reduces the people for savagery. By the time, some semblance of order is destroyed, all records have been lost, and all future generations know is that something catastrophic happened, several times, if the sketchy reports and legends are to be believed.

It's not Emerson's "envoys of beauty," that the people of Lagash see for the first time in a thousand years, and "Not Earth's feeble thirty-six hundred Stars visible to the eye-- [for] Lagash was in the center of a giant cluster. Thirty thousand mighty suns shone down in a soul-searing splendor that was more frighteningly cold in its awful indifference than the bitter wind that shivered across the cold, horribly bleak world."

It may be that Asimov had in mind a quote from Blaise Pascal, French mathematician, philosopher, and essayist, when he wrote "Nightfall." Pascal in Pensees had written that "The eternal silence of these infinite spaces [in the universe] terrifies me." This seems to be much closer to the story's tone than Emerson's "envoys of beauty."

While one could argue about the SFWA's recognition of "Nightfall" as the best short SF story of all time, it still is one of the best. Novels, of course, get the most recognition, but to ignore the science fiction and fantasy short stories and novellas is to lose out on many short but brilliant gems.

Overall rating: highly recommended.

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