Later today, the moon will pass in front of the sun over North America, resulting in a total solar eclipse the likes of which hasn’t been seen in decades over the continent. The image of the moon blotting out the sun is a powerful one: eclipses appear periodically throughout science fiction literature, either as visual flair in a science fiction movie, or a useful tool for a time traveler who happens to be in the right time and place to use one to escape a deadly ritual of some kind. While it’s not exactly about an eclipse, the event is a good time to look back on one particularly famous science fiction novelette, Isaac Asimov’s “Nightfall.”
Asimov is considered one of the genre’s best-known authors. After immigrating to the United States in 1922, he and his family settled in Brooklyn, New York, where he grew up in his father’s candy store. This was also where he read the earliest science fiction magazines and aspired to write for them. He sold his first science fiction story, “Marooned off Vesta” in 1939 to Amazing Stories, and began to quickly place more stories in other magazines, including “Strange Playfellow,” “Reason,” and “Liar!,” the first of his famous robot stories. However, in the September 1941 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, Asimov published what is probably his most famous story, “Nightfall.”
The story is set on a distant world called Lagash that orbits six suns which leave it bathed in perpetual sunlight, save for several rare occasions in which all the suns set at the same time. A group of scientists from a university have made a number of discoveries: ancient civilizations that rise and abruptly fall every 2000 years. At the same time, a cult has arisen that believes that a coming darkness that will destroy the world in fire. As the story opens, only a single sun is visible in the sky. “Beta was almost at zenith; its ruddy light flooding the landscape to an unusual orange as the brilliant rays of setting Gamma died. Beta was at aphelion. It was small; smaller than Theremon had ever seen it before, and for the moment, it was undisputed ruler of Lagash’s sky.”
During the story, one scientist explains to a reporter that years before, they discovered an anomaly with the orbits of the planet and suns, which led them to theorize and later discover the existence of an undiscovered moon that orbited Lagash, and which would soon block out Beta, leaving the planet bathed in darkness for hours. This eclipse does indeed come, bringing the predicted darkness to the planet, and revealing the stars to the inhabitants for the first time, which leads to the society’s collapse once again.
In his biography, I, Asimov, Asimov recalls that he happened upon a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore, and preserve for so many generations the remembrance of the city of God.” Asimov was intrigued by the thought, but when he brought it to Campbell in March 1941, the editor came away with a different conclusion: people would go insane, and told him “I want you to write a story about that and call it “Nightfall.”
Asimov obliged, and sold Campbell the resulting short story a month later. “To me,” he recalled, “it was just another story, but Campbell, a much better judge of such things, treated it as something unusual.” Asimov got a bonus for the story, and the story ended up as the cover for the September 1941 issue. It became a turning point in his career: “After ‘Nightfall’ was published, the rejections stopped.”
“Nightfall” became an incredibly popular story, and when the Science Fiction Writers of America polled its membership to put together its first Science Fiction Hall of Fame anthology, “Nightfall” came out on top: the best story of them all.
It’s not hard to recognize the appeal of the story. Asimov blends together Einstein’s theory of relativity with the impeccable sense of wonder that the night sky brings, capturing everything that science fiction readers looked for in a story. Adam Roberts, writing in the Second edition of his History of Science Fiction notes that Asimov “collapses the Copernican revolution into a single night,” and that “this deft little story recapitulates the conceptual crisis that had generated science fiction in the first place.”
While the story endured as a work of literature, it was later expanded into a novel by another science fiction author, Robert Silverberg, at the suggestion of Asimov’s editor, Martin Greenberg. “It occurred to him that aging writers like me had turned out a number of great magazine stories in our youth, stories we had never done anything further with, and didn’t plan to do anything further with. Why not get a younger writer to take a classic story and expand it into a novel?” Asimov was nervous about the idea, but allowed Silverberg to take up the project, realizing that it would give him more time to work on several of the other novels he was contracted to write. Ultimately, Asimov was pleased with the result, and Silverberg ended up expanding two other shorter works into novels, The Positronic Man (based on Asimov’s novelette The Bicentennial Man) and The Ugly Little Boy, based on the short story by the same name.
“Nightfall” has also been adapted for film, first in 1988 with a film directed by Paul Mayersberg, and again in 2000 by Gwyneth Gibby. Neither version was well received. Gibby explained that this was in part due to the low-budget nature of her film, but also because it presents a scenario that audiences can’t easily empathize with.
Gibby was a director who worked for Roger Corman’s studio, and had worked on several films for him. Corman’s wife Julie had produced the 1988 version, which considerably departed from the original story, and in 2000, he brought the script out once again, and gave it to Gibby to shoot in India. Gibby explained that she when she picked up the project, she picked up the story, and loved it. “Right away, there are problems making into a film,” she said. “The main one was that the experience of darkness that the people of this planet go through is horrifying to them, but it’s not to the audience sitting in the movie theater.”
Gibby ended up re-writing part of the script to include more of the philosophical elements and arguments of the original story. “What was so compelling to me was the arguments between the university and the religious cult,” an unending divide between academics and the faithful, both of which have some part of the truth regarding this scenario. While the film wasn’t well received, Gibby says that she was pleased with the time she spent working on the film, and notes that the story remains a compelling one, especially in recent, divided years.
Reading "Nightfall" today, it’s clear that despite some of the pulpish technique and style of the story, it holds up exceptionally well, contrasting the arguments between intellectualism and superstition as civilization fails to learn from its history. Indeed, the final line of the novelette never fails to elicit a chill: “The long night had come again.”