Top Asimov Stories #4: “Nightfall”
“Nightfall” is a widely popular story, often listed as one of the greatest science fiction stories of all time. It was published by Astounding Science Fiction in 1941 and it was voted the best science fiction short story to be published before the establishment of the Nebula Awards in 1965 (and therefore not eligible for one). The story was adapted into a full-length novel by Asimov and Robert Silverburgin 1990.
Asimov says in his autobiography that the story was inspired by 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 many generations the remembrance of the city of God which had been shown!
The editor of Astounding at the time, John W. Campbell, thought that, on the contrary, men would go mad. So the story’s primary theme is the juxtaposition of the two theories. It takes place on a planet with six suns, on a day in which there will be darkness for the first time in two thousand years: five of the suns have rotated to the other side of the planet, and the sixth will be eclipsed by the planet’s satellite. The story revolves around a certain columnist’s interactions with a group of scientists who believe that this darkness will cause widespread madness and the destruction of their civilization. The fear is of the “Stars,” which to people who have never seen them before would cause great anxiety.
The story puts in proportion the stars we see every night and take for granted, showing that they are beautiful and much more mysterious than we often realize. And isn’t that what every great story is supposed to do, put things in better perspective?