Since I was re-reading it anyway, I thought I might as well review one of my old sci-fi favourites:
Nightfall by Isaac Asimov and Robert Silverberg.
Originally written in 1941 as a novelette and one of Asimov’s earlier works and expanded into a novel by Asimov and Silverberg in 1990, this is a classic example of sci-fi imaginativeness combined with a nice touch of literary pragmatism.
Beginning with the beautifully well-chosen first sentence “It was a dazzling four-sun afternoon,” the story takes places on the planet Kalgash, where the six suns ensure that there’s never less than one sun in the sky. As such, the people have evolved with darkness as one of their deepest instinctual fears.
Ironically, it was written at the prompting of Asimov’s editor, in disagreement with the following Ralph Waldo Emerson 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!
Now, before I get into the plot, I should explain what I mean by “literary pragmatism”. The book begins with a foreword which can be summed up as follows: This is an alien world and these people aren’t human… but the languages and physical forms of the characters are irrelevant, so we wrote them as humans to save effort and reduce the load on your memory. Feel free to imagine more alien appearances and words if you want.
To be honest, I wish more sci-fi authors did that. Prioritize the details that are important to telling the story. If there are details that are dear to you but irrelevant, write another book in the same setting or include some supplementary artwork or an appendix.
When it comes to the narrative itself, Nightfall does something else that I don’t see enough of, but which is nothing new for Asimov (For example, he also did it in Foundation): The first few chapters introduce several different groups of characters, each interesting enough that many authors would (and have) let the whole book revolve around them… and then we watch as the narrative slowly leads them to meet.
In this case, different professionals following small pieces of evidence (a psychologist, an archaeologist, and an astrophysicist) which will lead them to the same horrible truth: That, in less than a year, a quirk in their orbital system will bring about the first bout of darkness in two millennia, and their civilization will tear itself apart.
It’s a concept with a ton of potential, but there are two things which really make it satisfying to me:
First, despite the rough details sounding like yet another take on the spate of post-apocalyptic survival shows and other media that have become popular lately, this doesn’t pump the character drama to the detriment of the story. (And, yes, I’m aware that’s neither a recent thing nor an objective sign of bad writing. Poul Anderson’s Tau Zero was written in 1970 and nominated for the Hugo award, but, to me, it read like a soap opera about boring characters set in a context that should have been interesting.)
Second, the convergent narrative really makes the story. Rather than getting bogged down in showing a long build-up as a single character or set of characters plays detective, the reader is treated to the best parts of multiple different ways of arriving at the same conclusion… each with its own pleasant sprinkling of flavor text.
Finally, despite it feeling very contemporary to the 1940s in style, it still remains engaging, with characters I enjoy reading about and enjoyable world-building details, such as talk of the “Beklimot culture” which was being researched at the site where evidence of prior civilization is revealed. With Asimov’s skill at writing engaging characters and effectively managing reader expectations, even the heavy character interaction meant to drag out the build-up to the eclipse still avoids the “dull soap opera” feel I got from Tau Zero.
The story is broken down into three parts: Twilight (the build-up to the realization, months before the eclipse), Nightfall (the day of the eclipse), and Daybreak (the aftermath)… and I agree with the general consensus that Daybreak, which wasn’t part of the original novelette, is the weakest part. While Twilight and Nightfall are tightly written and punchy, Daybreak feels like it doesn’t quite know what kind of pacing it wants to follow, and comes across very much like a modern post-apocalyptic survival TV series.
Beyond that, the ending has a sense to it that the author shouldn’t have set out to portray Daybreak, because there wasn’t really a good way to live up to the standard set by the first two parts within the constraints given.
That said, it’s still an excellent story and I’d certainly give the first two parts a 5 out of 5 rating. Maybe a 4.8 for the story as a whole.
Finally, after having read so much fanfiction and other electronic fiction recently, the feeling of re-reading that inherently sub-optimal ending made me realize something: There’s nothing quite like the sense of completion you get from finishing a print novel. With a computer screen, or an eReader, the end is just a milestone like any other, marked by nothing unique except the removal of the “Next” button, which could also merely signify an incomplete work. …but with a book, you’ve felt the balance of pages under left and right hands slowly change for hours. Finally, you reach the last page, you read the last word, and then you close the back cover… and contemplate.