Halloween always puts me in mind of H.P. Lovecraft, my favorite writer of horror. But as I was thinking of writing a “festive” post, I realized I didn’t want to pigeonhole Lovecraft as an author one only reads when in the mood for horror. It’s too easy, and he’s too brilliant to doom to such a restriction. So I decided to sidestep, using the inevitable Lovecraft as my starting point. And I began mulling over his idea of Cosmic Horror.
Now all my tales are based on the fundamental premise that common human laws and interests and emotions have no validity or significance in the vast cosmos-at-large.
One of Lovecraft’s greatest triumphs was the expression of a sort of hysterical wail, based in the recognition that man is nothing in a fundamentally hostile universe. His works tend to build, as he says,
A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces…
Thinking over this, I realized the description could be applied in a very different way to another great work of science fiction—a work not intending to terrify readers, but to suggest a terror entirely unknown to them. I’m speaking of Isaac Asimov’s early short story “Nightfall.”
Next to the Foundation Series and the Robot Series, “Nightfall” is probably Asimov’s best known and most acclaimed work. It’s widely (and deservedly) anthologized, and was once voted as the best science fiction short story of all time.
“Nightfall” first appeared in John W. Campbell’s formative Astounding Science Fiction pulp magazine in 1941. Campbell was both the most influential editor in the history of science fiction and infamously dictatorial with his authors (which is another blog post entirely!).
According to Asimov, “Nightfall” began as a conversation between himself and Campbell about Emerson. They were discussing a quote from Emerson’s essay Nature (1836), which famously established the philosophical foundation for Transcendentalism:
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!
For sf-outsiders, I won’t ruin the story for you. But the basic premise is this: a world called Lagash is located in a system that has six suns. As such, all the suns become blocked from the planet’s view only once every two thousand years, which is therefore the only time that true night occurs. A group of scientists and a growing Cult are preparing for the coming apocalypse they both believe will occur once night falls for the first time in two millennia—because in reality the most human reaction to this event, after lifetimes of sunlight, would be madness.
In other words, Campbell and Asimov disagreed with Emerson.
He stared moodily out at the skyline where Gamma, the brightest of the planet’s six suns, was setting. It had already faded and yellowed into the horizon mists, and Aton knew he would never see it again as a sane man.
“Nightfall” started as a dialogue with Emerson, but in this sense it also admirably demonstrates the great capacity for inter-author dialogue that emerged in sf circles around the 1930s, which enriched the genre beyond its typical bounds that supported mostly just a few very successful novelists (Wells, Burroughs, etc.). It also represented a new trend of what Asimov himself coined “social science fiction,” using science fiction settings to explore the psychology of humanity. Led by Campbell and filled in by Asimov, Heinlein, and Clarke, science fiction would soon be entering its Golden Age.
Asimov was 21 when the story was published—in fact still just a graduate student in chemistry at Columbia—but it was a major turning point in his career as a writer.
I was suddenly taken seriously and the world of science fiction became aware that I existed.
That’s not to say the story is flawless. Asimov was never great at drawing characters, and some of his dialogue is, frankly, cringe-inducing. But sf newbies, don’t let that turn you off. Asimov will grant you new perspectives, make you think, and provide plenty of entertainment along the way.
I do love Asimov, despite his failings. The man created a wildly successful science fiction universe, the Foundation series, based on Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (one of my favorite works ever). Plus, he was a prominent Baker Street Irregular. If you have some time this Halloween, please pick up “Nightfall” and savor reading all about a terror we can’t even conceive of.