Nightfall by Isaac Asimov
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Originally a fantastic short story written in 1941, the expanded novel, Nightfall, tells the story of the planet Kalgash, surrounded by six suns, with between two and four simultaneously in the sky, where one is always accustomed to light, and what happens to it when that light is suddenly taken away.
The humanoid aliens on Kalgash are so in love with light that they have lights in all of their rooms and sleep with lights on in their bedrooms. They can barely comprehend the concept of darkness and if and when thought of, it’s the most horrible thing they can imagine. It’s enough to drive them insane. Literally.
I believe that the short story was at some point named the best short story of any type of all time by some organization or another one year. And it truly was excellent. It was thus a challenge 50 years later for Robert Silverberg and Asimov to expand this story to include a prequel and a post-apocalyptic ending. While the novel is very good, and probably would normally merit five stars, there are a couple of major issues that make it problematic enough to drop it to four stars. I’ll explain in a moment.
The story begins with several story lines, all involving scientists from Saro University. During an excavation of Kalgash’s oldest known city, Siferra 89, an archaeologist, makes a discovery that many prior civilizations all have been subjected to complete destruction roughly every 2000 years. She does this by discovering, accidentally, between seven and nine additional cities buried below the “oldest” known city, all separated by distinct burn lines, showing they were destroyed by fire. Later carbon dating evidence confirms their ages terminated at roughly 2000 years each.
Additionally, Beenay 25, an astronomer, discovers an anomaly in the orbital path of Kalgash. He is distraught by this finding because it destroys a huge scientific theory thought so strong as to be a law, founded by his mentor and hero, Athor, the world’s greatest astronomer. Beenay and a team of scientists conclude that the only possible way this anomaly can occur is the consequence of another astronomical body that orbits Kalgash. This was previously completely unthought of, as it was known that Kalgash and its six suns were the only entities in the universe.
Furthermore, Sheerin 501, a university psychologist, analyzes the effects of complete darkness on the people of Kalgash, as they have never experienced such a phenomenon. He concludes it would be intolerable. In one critical and interesting part of the book, early on, he’s invited to another major city where the city has created a new attraction called the Tunnel of Mystery. Essentially it’s a 15 minute ride through a building that is completely and totally dark. No light anywhere. It’s quite popular. People flock to it when it opens. And it drives many of them stark raving mad. In fact, it’s so disastrous that some of these people literally die of shock and fright in the attraction! Sheerin is taken to a psychiatric hospital to interview “survivors” and concludes many of them will be insane for life. He reluctantly volunteers to go on this ride himself, as he knows it’s essential for him to experience it personally if he’s going to be able to fully understand it and help others. And it’s so horrifying, he barely retains his sanity and shakingly orders the city to immediately and permanently shut it down. Sheerin later concludes to his scientific colleagues that if and when darkness envelopes Kalgash, the world’s population will be driven mad and will destroy civilization, even though the darkness would only last some five to eight hours.
Eventually, everyone’s stories meet while they make the discovery that roughly every 2000 years, this normally unseen planet or moon (it’s unknown, but referred to as Kalgash Two) makes its way to within visible distance of Kalgash. When this happens, Kalgash Two blocks out the one sun in the sky on the rare day that occurs every 2049 years. As a result, Kalgash is enveloped in darkness and the effects of it eventually lead to the downfall of all civilization, which is consistent with Siferra’s archaeological observations. One of the interesting factors about this is there is a doomsday cult proclaiming the world’s destruction in a year and telling sinners to repent. They claim the world will be engulfed in darkness and things called “stars” will appear in the sky, be very bright, and will spit fire at Kalgash, destroying it in flame. They get some of it right. To the scientists’ horror, they come to realize their scientific findings match much of what these cultist’s have been saying. As the big date approaches, the scientists announce their findings and warn the citizens to make preparations for survival, but they are made fun of by a journalist named Theremon and are largely unheeded.
Then the second part of the book appears and it’s basically the classic short story, unchanged. The night arrives and the tension builds and Theremon, the skeptic, joins the astronomers and scientists in the university observatory waiting to see what happens. And it does happen. An eclipse. Kalgash Two really does exist. The eclipse starts to happen. Cries are heard in the cities. Fires are started by people frightened by the lack of light and looking to create light. At the moment that the eclipse becomes complete and total darkness envelopes Kalgash, thousands of stars appear in the sky, blinding the population and driving virtually all of them literally insane. The thought had been, if there were such things as stars, and few actually believed there could be, there couldn’t be more than a half dozen or a dozen and it wouldn’t be difficult to make it through that. Obviously, all of them were wrong.
The third part of the book is about the Day After and even the weeks after. Most everything has been destroyed. Millions of people have been killed. The university has been destroyed. People are wandering around in various states of insanity. Some people, though, had hidden away and survived. About 300 university-related people and their historical documents had hidden in an underground vault and undoubtedly the doomsday cult had also survived. This portion of the book is the story of Theremon, Sheerin, Beenay, and Siferra and the horrors they undergo just trying to survive the murderous insane nutjobs. I found the book’s ending to be vastly disappointing, tremendously anticlimactic, and lacking in every way. It was certainly not what I wanted at all. I think it could have been handled so much bettered. I think the authors butchered what had been a pretty good novel.
More importantly, as I mentioned early in this review, there are a couple of problem areas of the book that I think lower the book’s overall rating and enjoyment – and believability. For one thing, I realize the authors go to great length to ensure the readers understand just how important light is to Kalgash and its people and how foreign and frightening the concept of darkness – and actual darkness – is to same. Nonetheless, I can’t quite fully believe that an entire planet of people, minus a few thousand, would literally go insane from being exposed to darkness for a few hours. In fact, they weren’t. They were exposed to partial darkness as the eclipse started occurring and they started going insane then. Indeed, none of them were ever exposed to total darkness. And that is, I believe, the true major problem area of the book. When the stars appear, one of the quotes is, I believe, “The dazzling brightness of the stars was terrifying!” The stars are so incredibly bright that they light up the planet more than their suns do, so if they’re used to and love light so much, why in hell would this light drive them insane??? Why would seeing the stars for a few hours induce tens of thousands, maybe millions, of people to light fires and burn down houses, office buildings, factories, police stations, government buildings, the universities, forests, etc., et al, and to keep lighting fires for days, long after the stars had disappeared and the suns had reappeared in the sky, returning normalcy to the planet? It’s mind boggling and literally makes no sense. It’s not logical and it’s not consistent. It completely demolishes any believability the book has had. Therefore, how can you buy into any premise of the book at all? How can you buy the book, believe in what you’re reading, enjoy good science fiction, good writing, when there is such a monstrously bad gaping hole in the logic there? Indeed, if I hadn’t enjoyed the book so much, this alone would have dropped the rating from five stars to three, maybe even two, instead of the four I’m giving it. I’m not sure it even deserves four because of these problems. It simply is not convincing. That’s the problem. That’s why it’s not a top quality book. That’s why it can’t match the quality of the original short story. So, good book, yes. Decent writing. Decent characters, interesting plot, heavy on detail. I like all that. But it has major failures at its core. So it ultimately fails. Nonetheless, I’m recommending this book, as I think it makes for an original and interesting read and a largely enjoyable one, IF you can make it pass the gaps in the logic….