The long night had come again.
April 8, 2024 7:32 AM   Subscribe

Imagine a planet in a system with six suns where total darkness, in the form of a solar eclipse, comes only once every 2,049 years. This is the setting of "Nightfall," a short story that appeared in the September 1941 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. An immediate sensation, it sealed the reputation of its author, a little-known 21-year-old graduate student at Columbia University named Isaac Asimov.

Famously, Asimov was prompted by his editor, the legendary John Campbell, to consider a quote from Emerson: "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!"

Asimov had already written over 30 stories, but this was the first to appear on the cover of Astounding. He was paid $166 for it. In 1968, the Science Fiction Writers of America voted it the best short story written before the establishment of the Nebula Awards three years before. It is very much an artifact of the "golden age" of American science fiction, complete with exposition-stuffed dialog and cardboard characters with numbers in their last names. However, as an evocation of the awe and terror of a total solar eclipse, it remains haunting and unforgettable.
posted by How the runs scored (34 comments total) 31 users marked this as a favorite

"It'll have to go."
posted by Faint of Butt at 8:31 AM on April 8 [12 favorites]

I read a bunch of Asimov when I was a kid in the 80s, and a hilarious number of his novels open with an author's note to the effect of "this novel hinges on science fiction conceit X. I now of course understand that X is entirely impossible".
posted by phooky at 8:58 AM on April 8 [21 favorites]

Can’t find it on YouTube, but I remember a filmed version of it from the 80s that pre-teen me found pretty affecting.
posted by gottabefunky at 8:59 AM on April 8

"Stars - all the Stars - we didn't know at all. We didn't know anything."

I remembered that sentence the first time I was far enough out of a city to realize I could see the Milky Way for the first time.
posted by mhoye at 9:01 AM on April 8 [22 favorites]

It suddenly occurs to me that this story and "The Nine Billion Names of God", by Arthur C. Clarke, have exactly opposite premises.
posted by Halloween Jack at 9:03 AM on April 8 [19 favorites]

I remember hearing a dramatisation of this on X-1 or one of the other old-time radio shows, rebroadcast on public radio in the late 80s. I was full of questions.

Weren't half the people on the planet asleep through it all? What if it happened while the people in the continent where this takes place were asleep? Does this mean half the planet gets this effect every 2000 years? Why not leave a monument saying "Move to the other side of the world"?
posted by rum-soaked space hobo at 9:04 AM on April 8 [2 favorites]

The eclipse "lasts well over half a day" so presumably everybody sees at least a bit of it.
posted by joannemerriam at 9:08 AM on April 8 [1 favorite]

The detail that I particularly love is that this technological society that has things like telescopes and rudimentary cameras and printing presses has no artificial light source technology and "one of our own young men at Saro University" had to develop the ingenious and clever invention of...torches.

Presumably the angry mob only carries pitchforks.
posted by allegedly at 9:10 AM on April 8 [6 favorites]

I remember reading this, together with some explanation of the physical impossibility of it all. That might have been Asimov's own notes then, according to phooky.
posted by Harald74 at 9:11 AM on April 8

Mildly tangential, but immediately following "Nightfall" in the linked issue of Astounding magazine is "Adam and No Eve", by Alfred Bester, one of my favorite old-school SF stories.
posted by hanov3r at 9:33 AM on April 8 [3 favorites]

I remember reading this, together with some explanation of the physical impossibility of it all. That might have been Asimov's own notes then, according to phooky.

Quindar Beep's first comment above links to a paper that seems pretty convincing about the plausibility of the astrophysics involved. That same paper also observes, echoing phooky, "Nightfall is an example of what was known as 'hard science fiction' which aimed to have a realistic scientific base. However, Asimov, himself, was not very concerned with scientific detail as long as the events were plausible."

My biggest question, nowhere addressed in the story, is whether people slept at all, and if they needed closed eyes and a dark room to do it. I assume this is just my earth-centric bias showing and there would have been a completely different kind of "sleep" that creatures would evolve on a planet with more-or-less perpetual sunshine.

The most vivid detail that I carried over from reading this in junior high school is that everyone has an overwhelming fear of the dark and an account of an amusement park ride that took people through a darkened cave that had to be shut down because it gave people nervous breakdowns.
posted by How the runs scored at 9:39 AM on April 8 [4 favorites]

I took a lot of heat a few years ago for posting an FPP about Becky Chambers and NOT having read much science fiction authored by women growing up. Sorry, Isaac Asimov and the Big Name Boys was what they had at the library in the 1980s. He's definitely an author whose One Weird Thing conceit works much better for short stories than long novels. His work was a lot closer in time and in type to Arthur Conan Doyle or O. Henry than to today.

I was showing some youngsters a couple of classic Twilight Zone episodes and they were disappointed at how cliche they were. I was like, "you don't get it, this is where those tropes STARTED."
posted by rikschell at 9:54 AM on April 8 [20 favorites]

In my head canon, when this civilization finally made it unscathed through a Long Night, they eventually became the planet Krikkit.
posted by JohnFromGR at 10:00 AM on April 8 [7 favorites]

When I read this story many years ago I wondered if there existed a revelation that would drive the inhabitants of earth insane.
posted by night_train at 10:09 AM on April 8 [3 favorites]

posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 10:39 AM on April 8 [8 favorites]

night_train, it seems that right now that revelation is Induced Demand
posted by rum-soaked space hobo at 10:42 AM on April 8 [1 favorite]

Asimov suffered from a bunch of phobias, including agoraphobia, claustrophobia, mysophobia, and fear of flying.

And I think you can see his agoraphobia at least in Nightfall, and that it gives the story an authenticity of feeling it wouldn’t otherwise possess.

He and Ray Bradbury are the two golden Age greats I really cannot understand the adulation of, even though I read everything of Asimov's I could get hold of except his juveniles, including many of his non-fiction books and his monthly science column in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, in which he made quite a few mistakes, such as, if I recall correctly, botching an explanation of the red shift.

I think we should just take for granted that SFF authors are going to project their personalities and especially their peculiarities onto the future and the universe as a whole and not worry about it all that much, but for me Asimov is one of the most famous where it’s really obtrusive and hard to ignore.
posted by jamjam at 11:00 AM on April 8 [3 favorites]

That $166 is equivalent to about $1,500 today. Wikipedia says it's about 13,000 words, so about $0.11/word.

Is that good for a first publication? Seems like it to me, but I have don't really know.
posted by Frayed Knot at 11:28 AM on April 8 [1 favorite]

It's excellent for a first publication. Most short stories in professional science fiction magazines get paid 8 cents/word I think (it's been just about exactly 2 years since I last checked). A lot of people have their first publication in a non-pro mag, like mine was unpaid in a college journal.
posted by joannemerriam at 11:33 AM on April 8 [2 favorites]

That said, writers used to be paid much better. Payment has been close to static for decades, or by some measurements has been decreasing.
posted by joannemerriam at 11:38 AM on April 8 [1 favorite]

No mention of Pitch Black? I love that ridiculous movie but the model for the solar system makes no sense. It's geocentric with three stars (well, one binary and one singular), and the center planet isn't even the biggest one in the system. The orbits would be complete chaos.
posted by dephlogisticated at 1:01 PM on April 8 [2 favorites]

I accidentally - over the decades and continents - have two copies of his collection of short stories titled 'Nightfall' but, ironically, prefer the book version co-authored with Silverberg

* yeah I know all these guys have problems but so did the founding fathers and we still read the Constitution
posted by infini at 1:24 PM on April 8 [2 favorites]

Isaac Asimov deserved a special circle of Hell for his sideburns alone. *shudders*
posted by y2karl at 1:57 PM on April 8

Maybe this short story is the soul-opposite?
posted by 1adam12 at 2:30 PM on April 8 [4 favorites]

a filmed version of it from the 80s that pre-teen me found pretty affecting

Nobody I knew saw it, perhaps because of reviews like this one, from the LA Weekly:
They live in a future world with three suns - a world without darkness or talent that prophesied coming of night that will bring their pathetic world to an end. Once every generation a film comes along that is so incompetent, so completely disjointed, it becomes a standard against which all other bad movies must be judged. In order to qualify for such an honor, the film must be abysmal on all counts - the script, the acting, the camera work, the sound, the editing, even the costumes must add up to one big zero. The only reason for seeing Nightfall is so you can join a class-action suit against the filmmakers for wasting your time.
posted by Rash at 2:47 PM on April 8 [4 favorites]

Re. Ray Bradbury. He belongs IMO with a much earlier generation of American literature of writing about frontier and anxiety about expansion. He’s far closer than anyone realises to Jack London, who has really compelling stories about sled dogs and the Yukon, which appeal when you’re a kid, because they’re about animals and adventure, and you only realise the turned-up eugenic racism is there when you’re aware as an adult of the context. Ray Bradbury is Call Of The Wild In Space and it makes much more sense in that category.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 3:14 PM on April 8 [11 favorites]

Re: Isaac Asimov. The Caves of Steel is still pretty good.
posted by Rash at 3:33 PM on April 8 [3 favorites]

I was an extra in that horrible attempt of making Nightfall into a movie. I was 20 years old and had just arrived at Arcosanti where it was filmed.

HooooBoy that was a crazy few months, they used Arcosanti as the set because it is Arcosanti. I remember us all standing around watching the scene where one of the prophets gets his eyes pecked out by a crow.

I wore a robe of rags and a mask of black string like you make where it is dipped in glue and wrapped around a ballon and then the ballon is popped. They had hot glued giant plastic gemstones all over it. We stood in a group and swayed.

I have not thought about this in a very long time!
posted by tarantula at 4:02 PM on April 8 [37 favorites]

Flagged fantastic comment, tarantula. That is both weird and weirdly cool.
posted by humbug at 6:22 PM on April 8 [1 favorite]

I wondered if there existed a revelation that would drive the inhabitants of earth insane

that's no drive, it's a short putt
posted by flabdablet at 10:11 PM on April 8 [5 favorites]

I also discovered this as a teenager in the 90s by reading the book version co-authored with Robert Silverberg, which I absolutely loved.

Aside from the exciting story and commentary about how different people deal with having their worldviews turned upside down, I remember being very amused by the introduction, which I managed to find online:

> Kalgash is an alien world and it is not our intention to have you think that it is identical to Earth, even though we depict its people as speaking a language that you can understand, and using terms that are familiar to you. Those words should be understood as mere equivalents of alien terms-that is, a conventional set of equivalents of the same sort that a writer of novels uses when he has foreign characters speaking with each other in their own language but nevertheless transcribes their words in the language of the reader. So when the people of Kalgash speak of "miles," or "hands," or "cars," or "computers," they mean their own units of distance, their own grasping-organs, their own ground-transportation devices, their own information-processing machines, etc. The computers used on Kalgash are not necessarily compatible with the ones used in New York or London or Stockholm, and the "mile" that we use in this book is not necessarily the American unit of 5,280 feet. But it seemed simpler and more desirable to use these familiar terms in describing events on this wholly alien world than it would have been to invent a long series of wholly Kalgashian terms.

> In other words, we could have told you that one of our characters paused to strap on his quonglishes before setting out on a walk of seven vorks along the main gleebish of his native znoob, and everything might have seemed ever so much more thoroughly alien. But it would also have been ever so much more difficult to make sense out of what we were saying, and that did not seem useful. The essence of this story doesn't lie in the quantity of bizarre terms we might have invented; it lies, rather, in the reaction of a group of people somewhat like ourselves, living on a world that is somewhat like ours in all but one highly significant detail, as they react to a challenging situation that is completely different from anything the people of Earth have ever had to deal with. Under the circumstances, it seemed to us better to tell you that someone put on his hiking boots before setting out on a seven-mile walk than to clutter the book with quonglishes, vorks, and gleebishes.

> If you prefer, you can imagine that the text reads "vorks" wherever it says "miles," "gliizbiiz" wherever it says "hours," and "sleshtraps" where it says "eyes." Or you can make up your own terms. Vorks or miles, it will make no difference when the Stars come out.
posted by Ben Trismegistus at 7:52 AM on April 9 [6 favorites]

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