The Greatest Science Fiction Story of All Time: A Reflection

29 Apr

Below is an essay I wrote for Analog, the science fiction magazine. It was rejected, so I thought I’d publish it here. Comments are appreciated.

Decades after its phenomenal success, a reaction to a first reading of Asimov’s “Nightfall”

Author Isaac Asimov

By Lanny Morgnanesi

For more than a year there was a task entry in my Outlook program that said simply, “Read ‘Nightfall.’ ”

Although I am a fan of its author, I had never read this celebrated short story.

Some say it is the best science fiction story ever written. It certainly is Isaac Asimov’s most famous story. Hence, the note in Outlook, which I created after reading a passing reference to the story and its hallowed reputation.

I knew I could find the story quickly online whenever I wanted, and so never quite got around to it … like living in New York and not visiting the Statue of Liberty. I must have been waiting for a special moment, not wishing to consume the piece lightly.

That moment came in the form of a premonition, or something like one. I was attending a business meeting in a college library. During a break I went over to the stacks. Directly in front of me, at eye level, was, “Nightfall and Other Stories.”

I took it home.

The story was written in 1941 while Asimov was attending Columbia University and working in his father’s candy store. It was published in Astounding Science Fiction, whose editor was a man named John W. Campbell.

The anthology I brought home came out in 1969. It contains an introduction by Asimov that is almost as interesting as the title story.

Reflecting on something he produced almost three decades earlier, when he was 21, the author expressed amazement at the story’s popularity and endurance. At the time he wrote “Nightfall,” Asimov had published a dozen stories. Another dozen had been rejected. He would go on to become an incredibly prolific author but never considered himself a trained writer.

Still, in his anthology introduction, he seemed flummoxed that as a seasoned professional he could not duplicate the success of the novice who wrote “Nightfall.”

He says in the intro:

“Now let’s get something straight.  I didn’t write that story any differently from the way I had written my earlier stories – or, for that matter, from the way I wrote my later stories. As far as writing is concerned, I am a complete and utter primitive. I have no formal training at all and to this very day I don’t know How To Write.

“I just write any old way it comes into my mind to write and just as fast as it comes into my mind.

“And that’s the way I wrote ‘Nightfall.’”

The tone almost seems resentful of his first great accomplishment.

Asimov had expected to be paid $120 for “Nightfall.” When the check came for $150 he thought it was a mistake. He called the editor, Campbell, who said there was no mistake. Such a good story deserved more.

Campbell had a personal interest in the work. In fact, he gave the idea to Asimov. It was based on his disagreement with a quote by Emerson … a quote that appears at the beginning of “Nightfall.”

This is the quote:

 

“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?”

Rather than create wonder and delight, Campbell believed the sudden appearance of stars (and darkness) after 1,000 years of daylight would drive everyone mad. That is what Asimov wrote about … a planet with multiple suns that is perpetually bright, except for one true night every 2,000 years or so.

The reader learns the planet has no recorded history of these infrequent nights because during each one, the world goes mad and civilization is destroyed.

Over the eons, life has been repeatedly rebuilt from nothing. There is, however, some scattered, vague knowledge of this that is prophesized by an eccentric cult.

Unequivocally, an extraordinary premise for a story.

Yet after so much anticipation, after so many accolades, I was sadly let down by “Nightfall.” I’d like to think it was the filter of time that took the edge off, but I know it was more than that.

How to explain my disappointment with a great, wonderful, brilliant man worshiped by people much smarter and more literate than me?

“Nightfall” maps out a wonderful and inventive idea, but the writer, in my reading, fails to finesse it; doesn’t creatively exploit its potential. I call this kind of writing “idea” writing. The work of Ayn Rand is the same. Concepts are strong; characters and story telling tend to be weak.

My favorite work of Asimov is the Foundation trilogy. Like “Nightfall,” it contains an exceptional scenario and complex, innovative, paradigm-breaking concepts. So rare; so different; so insightful. It is from the mind of someone very special. But it reads the same as “Nightfall.”

There also is the filter of time working against the Foundation series.

Asimov’s work from the 40s and 50s reads as if it were written in the 40s and 50s. It’s not that way with all science fiction of the era. Some writers tried very hard to steep themselves in an entirely new milieu. In an effort to do that, Asimov will give his characters names like Sheerin 501 but then have people smoking on spaceships and treating women passengers like stewardesses.

In “Nightfall” an important and influential character is a newspaper columnist. Newspaper technology, of course, is based on a 15th Century European invention. One wishes, perhaps unfairly, that he would have seen the digital world, or something else, coming.

Still, the young man from the candy store had his touches.

As the panicked mad men and women of “Nightfall” begin setting the world on fire as a way to re-create the light from their disappearing suns, Asimov ends his story this way:

On the horizon outside the window, in the direction of Saro City, a crimson glow began growing, strengthening in brightness, that was not the glow of the sun.

“The long night had come again.”

That, from the best science fiction story ever written, gave me chills.

In the anthology, Asimov advises readers to closely look at the other stories to determine why – or if – “Nightfall” is better than the others. He can’t seem to tell. It is almost as if he is jealous of the early success and hopes the verdict elevates another candidate.

The strong reaction to “Nightfall,” apparently different from Asimov’s, suggests that the artist is really not in control of the art.  Without permission, the work goes where it wants to go or where it needs to be, depending on the mind that absorbs it.

Now there’s a subject for a science fiction story … if only Isaac were around to write it.

Lanny Morgnanesi is a writer living in Doylestown, Pa. He can be reached at lannym7@gmail.com

 

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7 Responses to “The Greatest Science Fiction Story of All Time: A Reflection”

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