Friday, January 29, 2010

The Rubaiyat: Quatrain XXI

This quatrain seems to be the first in a series of three linked quatrains: XXI, XXII, and XXIII. They, to me anyway, make more sense if read together than if read separately.

First Edition: Quatrain XXI

Lo! some we loved, the loveliest and the best
That Time and Fate of all their Vintage prest,
Have drunk their Cup a Round or two before,
And one by one crept silently to Rest.

Second Edition: Quatrain XXII

For some we loved, the loveliest and the best
That from his Vintage rolling Time has prest,
Have drunk their Cup a Round or two before,
And one by one crept silently to rest.

Fifth Edition: Quatrain XXII

For some we loved, the loveliest and the best
That from his Vintage rolling Time has prest,
Have drunk their Cup a Round or two before,
And one by one crept silently to rest.

What changes were made were limited to the first two lines and the last word in the second edition. The fifth edition is identical to the second. In the first edition, the quatrain begins with the exclamation "Lo" whereas in the second and fifth editions, FitzGerald substitutes the more prosaic "For" for "Lo." In the second edition, "Fate" no longer plays a role with "Time" in producing "the loveliest and the best." The last change is using a lower case "r" in the second and subsequent editions, in place of the upper case "R" found in the first edition.

The first change seems to follow the pattern FitzGerald established earlier of changing the poetic expressions and terms to more prosaic formulations.

Why did he drop the reference to "Fate" after the first edition? One possibility may be that "Fate" might have negative connotations. Would readers see "Fate" as suggesting something good or would the implication be something bad or unpleasant? On the other hand, "Fate" could also bring in ideas of determinism or a fixed future which he may have felt inappropriate here, even though there's a clear reference to this in a later quatrain. The use of "rolling" now imparts movement to Time. It is not just Time but "rolling Time," which indirectly brings in a reference to Fate. "Rolling" can suggest wheels, possibly the Wheel of Fate.

The last change also is an example of another pattern of changes: FitzGerald had changed the first letter of many nouns from the upper case in the first edition to the lower in subsequent editions. The change in meaning is subtle, from a static place or condition "to Rest" to the more active verb, "to rest." Of course, it could simply have been a typographical error in the first edition which he was simply correcting for the later editions.

I like the first line of the first edition better than the second through the fifth editions. "Lo" gets my attention better and suggests more strongly that a point is being made. "For" is weaker and moreover suggests that an explanation is to follow--but what is being explained?

However, this quatrain is a observation, one that has been made before. All must die eventually, even those of a superior vintage. Again, we see the theme of wine and wine-making brought up. The "loveliest and the best" are a vintage of time and fate, although only time is given the credit in the later editions. And this vintage, superior though they may be, now have "crept silently to rest"--the Fate of all.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Greg Benford: Furious Gulf--Galactic Center Book 5

Furious Gulf is the fifth book in Greg Benford's Galactic Center series. In this novel, Killeen Bishop and Bishop family reach the center of our galaxy, at which is the black hole they call the Eater. (Current theory supports the existence of a black hole at the center of our galaxy and at the center of many other galaxies also.) In the first two volumes, In The Ocean of Night and Across the Sea of Stars, we followed the exploits of Nigel Walmsley, a Brit who somehow wrangled his way to becoming an astronaut for NASA. Those two novels covered the period from the 1990s to around 2060 or so and depicted humanity's first tenuous contacts with the hostile mech culture.

Book three in the series, Great Sky River, takes us some 30,000 years into the future and far from Earth. During that period humans have spread throughout the galaxy but had seemingly reached their peak and dwindled down into isolated remnants scattered throughout the galaxy. The planet Snowglade contained some of these remnants, a few bands of tech-nomads desperately trying to survive the mechs. Discovering a ancient human built spacecraft, which they name the Argo, and with the aid of a renegade mech (perhaps) known as the Mantis, the humans escape the planet.

In Tides of Light, Killeen Bishop, who has become the leader of the Bishop family and remnants of other families, leads his people to another planet which they had hoped to settle, free once again from the mechs. Instead, they find more bands of humans who are engaged in a struggle for survival, first against the mechs and then against the mulitpedia, who are an organic intelligent species far in advance of the humans and who are also apparently on the way to becoming an organic/mech hybrid. After a struggle, Killeen once again leads his people off-planet and heads for the Galactic Center, this time accompanied by Quath, one of the multipedia who comes along as a representative of and a contact with the multipedia, .

Furious Gulf opens with the Argo nearing the Eater, the massive black hole at the Galactic center. Killeen faces a mutiny aboard ship for his crew has been on reduced rations for some time, and he has ignored their requests to stop and replenish supplies. Killeen, at this point, resembles Melville's Captain Ahab much more than Captain Kirk of Star Trek fame. Killeen is obsessed with reaching the Center, for legends, myths, and his instincts tell him that the secret of survival in the war with the mechs lies at the Center, and he seems willing to sacrifice his ship and crew in pursuit of that secret.

Warning: I am going to discuss significant plot elements and the ending of the novel.

With the aid of the mysterious electromagnetic entity who has appeared previously, the Argo is able to avoid the mechs and find a temporary haven at a space station? on the edge of the black hole. At this point, the disagreement between Killeen and his son Toby emerges, and this appears to be the result of one of the strangest Oedipal conflicts I have ever read.

The humans who run the station are not doing this out of any warm feelings for humanity but out of a profit motive. The Bishops and the Argo can stay, but there are various fees, one of which is access to the so far untranslatable tiles found on the ship.

Benford has allowed us to listen in while the mechminds debate their course of action with regards to the humans, and we have discovered that they also are intrigued by these same tiles. They just might be a threat to the mech civilization. The mechs are also concerned because they know that mysterious intelligences superior to them exist. Are these intelligences more highly evolved mechminds or could they impossibly be organic?

In the first two novels, the POV character was Nigel Walmsley, whose struggles with his superiors in NASA was a significant part of the work. The third and fourth novels featured Killeen Bishop and his struggles, not surprisingly, with various authority figures and to some extent with his crew, which could replace him if they became too disenchanted with him. In this novel, the POV now shifts a third time, to Killeen's son Toby. We experience events from Toby's perspective, including his view of his father, who is struggling to keep the crew under control.

Toby, about two-thirds of the way into the novel, finally breaks with his father and escapes into the strangest environment yet presented. To a considerable extent the landscape consists partially of more or less "solid" time. No, I'm not going to attempt to explain this.

While Toby is on the run, the mechs make a concerted attack on the human stronghold. They, like Killeen, believe there is a threat to mech survival, and it seems to have something to do with getting three generations of a family together. Somehow, Abraham (interesting name for a patriarch), Killeen's father, has managed to escape the final attack on the Bishop stronghold on Snowglade and get to the Galactic Center. The mechs want capture them, if possible, and discover just what the nature of the threat might be, or at least eliminate them to remove the threat.

Toby eventually manages to reach a sanctuary and is greeted by Nigel Walmsley, who has managed to survive for 30,000 years through judicious use of cold sleep and the time-dilation effects of existence on the edge of a black hole (these effects are a generally accepted and respectable part of the theory regarding black holes). Time is the strangest thing, especially around black holes. We are now ready for the climactic struggle between the mechs and humanity.

Thus ends Furious Gulf.

The star of the show is the Eater, the black hole at the center of our galaxy. I've read other accounts and have even seen at least one film of the environment of a black hole, but Benford is the first to really focus on and bring out its strangeness, and that includes several life forms. That he is able to do this is, no doubt, the result of his education and training as an astrophysicist. In the "Afterward" to Furious Gulf, Benford writes--

"It has been an unusual experience to conjure up imaginary events about a place that I was also doing hard calculations about. Freed of the bonds of The Astrophysical Journal, I have felt at liberty to speculate on what processes might have transpired, over the galaxy's ten billion years of furious cooking, to create forms of life and intelligence beyond our ken."

Overall Rating: again a superb effort on Benford's part.

Now, on to Book 6, the final book in the series, Sailing Bright Eternity.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Something to think about

Eric Hoffer
Reflections on the Human Condition

The following is a brief quote from Eric Hoffer's Reflections on the Human Condition.

"The savior who wants to turn men into angels is as much a hater of human nature as the totalitarian despot who wants to turn them into puppets.

There are similarities between absolute power and absolute faith: a demand for absolute obedience; a readiness to attempt the impossible; a bias for simple solutions--to cut the knot rather than unravel it; the viewing of compromise as surrender; the tendency to manipulate people and 'experiment with blood.' Both absolute power and absolute faith are instruments of dehumanisation. Hence absolute faith corrupts as absolutely as absolute power."

Reflections on the Human Condition was first published in 1973, over 35 years ago. This quote suggests that it could have been published last week.

What do you think? Is he overstating his case?

Eric Hoffer is the author of The True Believer, a work which should be read by anyone who wants to gain some understanding of the true believer, one who is ready to die for a belief and, unfortunately, equally ready to kill others in the name of that same belief. The true believer is one who knows the only way to paradise and is determined to lead you there, even if it kills you. This person exists on both sides of the political fence.

Saturday, January 16, 2010


Those who don't read SF and Fantasy probably have never had the chance to become acquainted with two of the finest short story writers in the English language: Ray Bradbury and Theodore Sturgeon. Their tales range from the outright fantastic to horror to everyday life. I've discussed some of Bradbury's tales already, mostly in conjunction with film versions, and there are many others which I want to bring up. Today, though, I want to discuss briefly three of Sturgeon's stories that are favorites of mine. One, not only is a favorite, but it forced me to think about some of my attitudes and eventually changed my way of thinking.

Warning: I will bring up significant plot elements and even the endings for some of the stories.

"Bianca's Hands"

This is a horror story, I think. It might even be a love story. Perhaps it's both. I'm not sure what to call it for it's one of the strangest stories I've ever read, and it has stayed with me ever since I first read it decades ago. See for yourself. I will quote the opening paragraphs and let it speak for itself.

"Bianca's mother was leading her when Ran saw her first. Bianca was squat and small, with dank hair and rotten teeth. Her mouth was crooked and it drooled. Either she was blind or she just didn't care about bumping into things. It didn't really matter because Bianca was an imbecile. Her hands . . ."

This is a strange way to begin a love story, the story of an overwhelming passion that eventually leads to a tragedy. At least, I think it's a tragedy. But it gets stranger when one reads the last words of the paragraph which leads into the second paragraph--"Her hands . . ."

"They were lovely hands, graceful hands, hands as soft and smooth and white as snowflakes, hands whose color was lightly tinged with pink like the glow of Mars on Snow. They lay on the counter side by side, looking at Ran. They lay there half closed and crouching, each pulsing with a movement like the the panting of a field creature, and they looked. Not watched. Later, they watched him. Now they looked. They did, because Ran felt their united gaze , and his heart beat strongly."

Ran rents a room and moves in with Bianca's mother and Bianca, or rather, to be realistic, Bianca's hands. He then begins to court, not Bianca, but her hands. Or, perhaps it was the reverse: they began to court? seduce? him.

"Bianca was alone in the room, and Ran went to her and sat beside her. She did not move, nor did her hands. They rested on a small table before her, preening themselves. This, then, was when they really began watching him. He felt it, right down to the depths of his enchanted heart. The hands kept stroking each other, and yet they knew he was there, they knew of his desire. They stretched themselves before him, archly, languorously, and his blood pounded hot. Before he could stay himself he reached and tried to grasp them. He was strong, and his move was sudden and clumsy. One of the hands seemed to disappear, so swiftly did it drop into Bianca's lap. But the other--"

As I read the story, I gradually realized that this tale could not, would not have a "happy ending"--or, at least an ending that I would call "happy." Ran couldn't see that something here was wrong. The horror increases as Ran becomes more and more infatuated with her hands. Finally, he seals his fate when he asks Bianca's mother for permission to marry Bianca (no, I will not give in and say he asks for her hand.)

Is there a moral here? Perhaps. It does point out the danger of focusing on only one aspect of the beloved and not the whole person.

What makes this story so memorable is Sturgeon's language. He manages to make those hands the real focus of the story. They are alive and independent; Bianca's body is simply the means of transporting those hands. He imbues them with a consciousness that is both real and grotesque at the same time.

Overall Rating: a quiet little horror tale that deserves far more attention than it gets.


"The Silken-Swift"

I guess one could call this one a fantasy, mostly anyway. The title refers to a unicorn, a mythical beast, except that in this story it isn't mythical. This story looks at an obsession, sexual naturally, but one that seems more natural than in the previous tale. It's also the story of the eternal triangle: two women and one man. One woman uses him and abuses him, while the second woman is abused by him. It takes a unicorn to resolve the confusion. However, I'm not too sure about the ending. I have some problems with it, and it would be interesting to hear what others think about it.

Briefly, Rita is the daughter of the richest man in the village. She is beautiful and selfish and skilled in the use of potions that manipulate people's feelings. In this way, she has made fools of many men without ever giving them what they think she promises.

One night, she torments a new man, Del, in this way, and left him temporarily blinded by one of her drugs. Barbara, another woman from the village, one who has been quietly in love with him, finds him and attempts to help him. Del, still blind, thinks it's Rita and takes his revenge on her now that he has her within reach. Barbara never tells him of his mistake.

Rita, learning of the presence of the unicorn, has a golden bridle made and gets Barbara to lead them to the pond where the unicorn--the Silken-Swift-- comes to drink. Rita will prove that she is still a virgin for only virgins are able to catch a unicorn.

The pond, even though in the midst of a swamp, was special: "It was a place without hardness or hate, where the aspens trembled only for wonder, and where all contentment was rewarded. Every single rabbit there was the champion nose-twinkler, and every waterbird could stand on one leg the longest, and proud of it. Shelf-fungi hung to the willow-trunks, making that certain, single purple of which the sunset is incapable , and a tanager and a cardinal gravely granted one another his definition of 'red.'"

However, the unicorn ignores the myth and rejects Rita in front of a large crowd of villagers and comes to Barbara. But, there is a price to be paid as the unicorn flips Rita's golden bridle into the pond.

"And the instant it touched the water, the pond was a bog and the birds rose mourning from the trees.

. . .

Barbara said, 'For us, he lost his pool, his beautiful pool.'

And Del said 'He will get another. He must.' With difficulty he added, 'He couldn't be . . . punished . . . for being so gloriously Fair.'"

Strange ending: Rita wrongly is believed to not be a virgin. Del gets the girl whom he raped and the Unicorn loses its beautiful pond. Should Del be rewarded? Why did the Silken-Swift lose its pond? Was it really "for being so gloriously Fair."?

Overall Rating: well-written, as is typical of a Sturgeon tale, but it leaves some disquieting questions unanswered, for Sturgeon has taken a few liberties with the myth.


"Thunder and Roses"

This is the story that caused me to reconsider some of my beliefs many years ago. It didn't change them immediately, but it stayed with me and influenced me so that I no longer think the way I did then. The story was published in 1947, at the beginning of the Cold War, when many people feared that a nuclear war was imminent. The two most strident reactions were generally all one heard: "Better Red than Dead" shouted one side, while the other side screamed "Better Dead than Red." Sturgeon's story suggested there were other options and other, better ways to think. One way was to see all of us as part of humanity.

In "Thunder and Roses," the horror has happened. A surprise nuclear attack has virtually destroyed the US, wiping out the government and military so quickly that no retaliation could be made. The story is set on a small obscure military post that escaped being wiped out. However, those there know their time is short, days for some, a week or two or maybe even a month for most. The North American continent is uninhabitable.

However, the enemy will not escape either, for the amount of radiation released by the attack is so great that within a year or two, it will blanket the northern hemisphere, and as one of he characters says, "They have killed us, and they have ruined themselves."

One of the survivors discovers that the post has a secret backup control system for launching a retaliatory strike, if the first line system has been knocked out. His immediate reaction is that he now has a chance to destroy those who have destroyed the US.

The issue is not that simple. In the story, there is a level of radiation that would eventually destroy all of humanity and almost all of the other species we share this planet with. It's the scenario set up in Nevil Shute's On the Beach. So far, that limit hasn't been reached, yet. It will be, though, if the US retaliates. This is the conflict: revenge vs a concern for all life.

Sturgeon has one of his characters tell us:

"A disease made other humans our enemies for a time, but as the generations march past, enemies become friends and friends enemies. The enmity of those who have killed us is such a tiny, temporary thing in the long sweep of history!'

. . .

'And even if this is the end of humankind, we dare not take away the chances some other life-form might have to succeed where we failed. If we retaliate, there will not be a dog, a deer, an ape, a bird or fish or lizard to carry the evolutionary torch. In the name of justice, if we must condemn and destroy ourselves, let us not condemn all other life along with us. Mankind is heavy enough with sins. If we must destroy, let us stop with destroying ourselves!'"

This was a philosophy that I hadn't heard before. It argues that we look beyond our family, our clan, our city, our nation, even beyond our own species. Of course, today, while this is not accepted by even a sizable minority, it is prevalent, even if only to be derided by the "wise" and the practical. In 1947, at least in my immediate universe, it was a radical thought, and one I had to struggle with. What's unfortunate is that I can't tell Theodore Sturgeon that he succeeded in convincing me and, possibly, many others also.

Who knows? Maybe in a century or two, someone will read this story and wonder why it was necessary to argue such an obvious way of thinking about our place here.

Any thoughts?

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Carl Sandburg: January 6, 1878--July 22, 1967

I'm prejudiced here. I was born and raised (mostly) in Chicago, so Sandburg naturally was one I looked into when I first began reading poetry. He didn't get all of Chicago into his poetry, but he got more than anybody else I've read.

One of my favorite poems by Carl Sandburg.


The fog comes
on little cat feet.

It sits looking
over harbor and city
on silent haunches
and then moves on.

I have a cat and it's mostly grey. It frequently reminds me of Sandburg's poem.

I haven't read anything by Sandburg in many years now. Perhaps it's time to renew an old acquaintance.

Do you want to mention a favorite poem by Sandburg?

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Francois Villon: Jan. 5, 1463?

I have found Francois Villon to be a fascinating character, and even more fascinating, or perhaps mysterious would be a better word, his fate. No one knows what happened to him. (For the full article which I've quoted from, see the link at the end of the post). He was sentenced to be hanged in late 1462, but this was commuted to banishment on January 5, 1463. He was never heard of again.

"Francois Villon (1431-after 1463) was a French poet, thief, and general vagabond. He is perhaps best known for his Testaments and his Ballade des Pendus, written while in prison. He is one of the most influential secular poets of fifteenth-century European literature. Villon freely integrated his experiences from his life of crime into his poetry, and the result was some of the first poetry to present, in unflinching terms, the lives of the peasant classes. He became something of a "patron saint" for those who would use their art to criticize power. Whether his roguish life was an extension of his critique, or the other way around, Villon's attitude is the embodiment of an anti-social perspective that would become popular with artists in the modern and post-modern era.

In 1461, at the age of only thirty years old, Villon wrote the Grand testament, the work which has immortalized him. Despite having composed a literary masterpiece, Villon couldn't keep himself away from a life of crime. In the autumn of 1462 he had fled to the cloisters of Saint-Benoit to escape the authorities, and in November he was in prison once again for theft. The old charge of stealing from the College of Navarre was revived, and even a royal pardon did not bar the demand for restitution. Bail was accepted, however, Villon fell promptly into a street quarrel, was arrested, tortured and condemned to be hanged, but the sentence was commuted to banishment. What happened to Villon after this event is unknown—from this point on there exists no further record of Villon's biography. "

This is my favorite poem of his, and it contains what is probably one of the most famous lines in poetry: "But where are the snows of yester-year?" This poem could easily be placed in an themed anthology with Edward Fitzgerald's The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. It has that same feel of past glories that are gone forever.

The Ballad of Dead Ladies

Tell me now in what hidden way is
Lady Flora the lovely Roman?
Where's Hipparchia, and where is Thais,
Neither of them the fairer woman?
Where is Echo, beheld of no man,
Only heard on river and mere,—
She whose beauty was more than human? . . .
But where are the snows of yester-year?

Where's Héloise, the learned nun,
For whose sake Abeillard, I ween,
Lost manhood and put priesthood on?
(From Love he won such dule and teen!)
And where, I pray you, is the Queen
Who willed that Buridan should steer
Sewed in a sack's mouth down the Seine? . . .
But where are the snows of yester-year?

White Queen Blanche, like a queen of lilies,
With a voice like any mermaiden,—
Bertha Broadfoot, Beatrice, Alice,
And Ermengarde the lady of Maine,—
And that good Joan whom Englishmen
At Rouen doomed and burned her there,—
Mother of God, where are they then? . . .
But where are the snows of yester-year?

Nay, never ask this week, fair lord,
Where they are gone, nor yet this year,
Except with this for an overword,—
But where are the snows of yester-year?

(trans. by Dante Gabriel Rossetti)

Sunday, January 3, 2010

J. R. R. Tolkien: Jan. 3, 1892--Sept. 2, 1973

I have heard many readers express disappointment with Tolkien's The Silmarillion (TS). It isn't as good as The Lord of the Rings (LotR) or so many have said. Some claim it's boring. I think this reaction has two different causes. The first is that Tolkien died before he finished the work. His son Christopher Tolkien took on the task of completing it. Unfortunately Christopher Tolkien is not the writer his father was. However, I do not find the work to be poorly written; it may plod sometimes but the content is well worth the effort.

The second problem and the more serious one is that many readers misunderstand Tolkien's view of The Silmarillion. It was not, as far as I can see, to be a grand epic of a quest as was The Lord of the Rings, or even to a lesser extent, as was The Hobbit (TH). I think Tolkien had history in mind when he wrote The Silmarillion. It was to be a history of Middle Earth, prior to the events of the two novels. Tolkien was creating a universe. Consequently we don't have the same focus that we find in LotR or TH.

The one work I find that most closely approaches Tolkien's intentions is The Old Testament, the first book of which is Genesis, and it begins--

1. In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.

2. And the earth was without form, and void: and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.

3. And God said: Let there be light: and there was light.

This is, of course, the Creation story, as recounted in the King James Version. It is the creation of the world--the very beginning of time, of history, of the relationship between God and its creatures.

Now, the first book of The Silmarillion is "Ainulindale: The Music of the Ainur," and it begins as follows:

"There was Eru, the One, who in Arda is called Iluvatar; and he made first the Ainur, the Holy Ones, that were the offspring of his thought, and they were with him before aught else was made. And he spoke to them, propounding to them themes of music; and they sang before him, and he was glad. But for a long while they sang only each alone, or but few together, while the rest hearkened; for each comprehended only that part of the mind of Iluvatar from which he came, and in the understanding of their brethren they grew but slowly. Yet ever as they listened they came to deeper understanding, and increased in unison and harmony."

This clearly is a Creation story, the very beginning of the world of Middle Earth. However, in Tolkien's universe, God works with his first creation, the Ainur, to create the universe. And, instead of light, Eru, in a sense, says "Let there be music." He gives the Ainur "a mighty theme, unfolding to them things greater and more wonderful than he had yet revealed."

He then gives them their task: "ye shall show forth your powers in adorning this theme..."

"Then the voices of the Ainur, like unto harps and lutes, and pipes and trumpets, and viols and organs, and like unto countless choirs singing with words, began to fashion the theme of Iluvatar to a great music; and a sound arose of endless interchanging melodies woven in harmony that passed beyond hearing into the depths and into the heights . . . and the music and the echo of the music went out into the Void, and it was not void."

And later--

"But when they were come into the Void, Iluvatar said to them: 'Behold your music!' And he showed to them a vision, giving to them sight where before was only hearing; and they saw a new World made visible before them, and it was globed amid the Void, and it was sustained therein, but was not of it."

And . . .

"And they saw with amazement the coming of the Children of Iluvatar, and the habitation that was prepared for them; and they perceived that they themselves in the labour of their music had been busy with preparation of this dwelling, and yet knew not that it had any purpose beyond its own beauty. For the Children of Iluvatar are conceived by him alone. . . Now the Children of Iluvatar are Elves and Men, the Firstborn and the Followers."

While "Genesis" and "Ainulindale" differ, they do parallel each other in many respects, and I think that we should not force The Silmarillion into being something that it is not meant to be. It is a unique work, separate in design and intent from The Lord of the Rings, and it should be read with this in mind.

Overall Rating: highly recommended for those interested in Tolkien's universe.

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.

The Rubaiyat: Quatrain XX

Quatrain XX seems rather apt for this time of the year--the beginning of the New Year.

First Edition: Quatrain XX

Ah, my Beloved, fill the Cup that clears
To-day of past Regrets and future Fears--
To-morrow?--Why, To-morrow I may be
Myself with Yesterday's Sev'n Thousand Years.

Second Edition: Quatrain XXI

Ah, my Beloved, fill the Cup that clears
To-day of past Regret and Future Fears:
To-morrow?--Why, To-morrow I may be
Myself with Yesterday's Sev'n Thousand Years.

Fifth Edition: Quatrain XXI

Ah, my Beloved, fill the Cup that clears
To-day of Past Regrets and Future Fears:
To-morrow?--Why, To-morrow I may be
Myself with Yesterday's Sev'n Thousand Years.

As you can see, FitzGerald made very few changes to this quatrain, and none that I would consider significant. In the Second Edition, he drops the "s" from "Regrets," changes the dash at the end of the line to a colon, and capitalizes the "F" in "future." I wonder if the lost "s" is really an error that happened with the setting of the type for the Second Edition. The colon could suggest that the third and fourth lines explain the second line--that there's no need for regrets and fears for tomorrow he may be dead himself, and therefore beyond regret and fear.

The only differences I can see between the Second and Fifth Editions are the restoration of the "s" after "Regret" so that it is now the same as the First version and the capitalization of the "p" in Past. In the first version, it was "past Regrets and future Fears." This became "past Regret and Future Fears" in the second and, finally, "Past Regrets and Future Fears" in the fifth. This may be more for the appearance of the phrase than for any significant change in meaning.

The quatrain seems to be a celebration of wine, that which gladdens the heart by helping us to forget the past and to become indifferent about the future. In fact, when asked about the future, he exclaims that he himself might be dead tomorrow, another variation on the theme of enjoying oneself today for tomorrow we may die and, therefore, become part of the past.