Sunday, November 27, 2011

Nightfall and Nightfall

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!

In 1941, Isaac Asimov published a What if? story inspired by John W. Campbell who, in turn, was inspired by the Ralph Waldo Emerson quote above. What if humanity had never seen stars? In both the short story and novel form, Nightfall proposes people would go crazy. Catastrophically crazy.

File:Nightfall cover.jpg

The Short Story

The short story takes place on a planet with six suns. At any given time, you can expect the six suns to light every inch of the surface. Which means the people who live there don't know what darkness is. It's an abstract concept to them. We learn early on that when these people are faced with darkness they go apeshit insane.

A group of scientists make a terrifying discovery: every two thousand years, the planet goes dark. What does this mean for a civilization who has never seen darkness? Widespread psychosis. A civilization that tears itself down. See, the darkness is scary enough, but the appearance of the stars make the people go absolutely mad. Gripped by the star-crazed madness, the people will do anything for light. They'll burn any and everything they can get their hands on.

The story scared the shit out of me. It doesn't play on the fear of darkness itself, but on the fear of "crazy" people. To be more exact, the horror element emerges from the taut suspense: you know people are going to start flipping out and you know there's nothing the main characters can do about it. The very last line of the story chilled me to the bone.

Asimov stated he was perplexed by the popularity of the story (along with Campbell's Who Goes There? and Orson Scott Card's original version of Ender's Game, it's often called the best short story in the SF genre). He had been reluctant to give the story credit, but finally did in a short stories collection. To date, the story has been anthologized almost 50 times.

The Novel

In the nineties, Asimov and Robert Silverberg co-wrote a novel version. The cover of my edition claims the short story was only part of the story. They weren't kidding.

The novel begins years before the events we witnessed in the short story. We get to know many of the characters and watch them piece together the facts: a psychologist who is treating psychotic patients who have been exposed to darkness, an archaeologist who accidentally discovers several previous civilizations, all of which were burned to the ground, and an astronomer who realizes a time will come when the planet is plunged in darkness.

The catastrophe itself takes place about midway through the book and it happens more or less exactly as it happened in the short story. The last third of the book is about the aftermath, in which most of the world's survivors are irreversibly insane. At one point, a main character observes a group of crazy men desperately trying to uproot a tree. It was one of those images that will stick with me. The men had no good reason—you don't have to when you're crazy—they just wanted to pull a tree out of the ground.

You could say these people are overreacting, sure, but even Earthlings who are accustomed with nightfall have this embedded fear of the dark, which is only ignored and never cured. It isn't really that hard to buy the catastrophic events that occur.

The original title of this post was Nightfall VS Nightfall, but it wasn't fair to compare them. They are two separate entities written at two very different times. The novel won't be considered a classic, and that's shame, just because it retreads some of the same material as the short story, which is considered a classic. I suggest reading them both, starting with the short story which you can listen to at Escape Pod.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Caution: Weightless Condition (2001: ASO Production Stills)

My high school library had a book about the making of 2001: A Space Odyssey. I could only read it while I was in the library because I was severely overdue on a book... which just happened to be 2061: Odyssey Three. It had a lot of great photographs from the production of that film, but I'm not sure this one was one of them:


I am sure, however, that the book had a dead-on close-up of the zero gravity bathroom instructions seen here:


I can't find the same photo used in the book, but I did find this at PodSix.com in case you want to see them in detail, too.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Free Story Friday: The Fermi Paradox Is Our Business Model

Man. This is one easy, entertaining read: The Fermi Paradox Is Our Business Model by Charlie Jane Anders. When I was in bed the other night, I decided to give my ebook reader another try. When I powered it up, a collection of short stories published by Tor mysteriously showed up on my home screen. It was only a preview, but I started reading it anyway. I just hoped the preview would end sometime after the conclusion of the first story, not before.

Nope. Chuck Testa.

So I paid $2.99 (because, after all, nothing is more thrilling than buying things without even getting out of bed) to read the last few pages of the story. It was worth it. Then I discovered it was available for free on the Internet. It was still worth it.

As for me, I'm going to go play some more Skyrim. The game came out three hours ago. My girlfriend wanted me to come over tonight. See: my response, an image stolen from Reddit.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Best of John W. Campbell 1976

cover art H. R. Van Dongen

CONTENTS

Introduction: The Three Careers of John W. Campbell by Lester del Rey
The Last Evolution
Twilight
The Machine
The Invaders
Rebellion
Blindness
Elimination
Forgetfulness
Out of Night
Cloak of Aesir
Who Goes There?
Space for Industry
Afterward by Mrs. John W. Campbell

Edited by Lester del Rey, this collection contains Twilight, the short story Campbell originally published under the pseudonym Don A. Stuart. As del Rey says in the intro, Campbell wrote pulpy stories, like almost every other SF writer at the time, under his real name. It wasn't until later he developed the pseudonym Stuart, under which he wrote stories of a more serious vein. The first story in this collection isn't of much interest (other than historical) as it is one of his earlier, more pulpy efforts, but the rest, starting with Twilight and more or less concluding with Who Goes There? (the inspiration for The Thing From Another Planet, John Carpenter's The Thing, and the 2011 reboot/prequel), showcase his talents nicely.

As for Twilight, there's something that must be said about a story that takes you 7 billion years into the future, especially when it was written in 1934 and seems so modern today. Unfortunately for me (but fortunately for everyone else on the planet) someone already wrote about it: Ryan Harvey over at Black Gate, a fantastical fiction blog. Read the article here. Says Harvey:

And yes, as the heading of this post indicates, to me the title “Twilight” always means this story. It had too potent an effect on me to ever allow anything else, no matter how much popular culture it devours, to steal the word “twilight” for other use.

While most fans consider Who Goes There? John W. Campbell's masterpiece, I think Twilight deserves more recognition for being the first modern science fiction story by a man who's largely credited for inventing modern science fiction.

In his memoirs I, Asimov, Isaac Asimov talks favorably of Campbell for the most part, later expressing his dismay over the editor's decision to buy into L. Ron Hubbard's Dianetics, the foundation of Scientology. Many writers who had been loyal to the man who once injected real science into science fiction began ignoring his publication, Asimov included. In his introduction to this collection, del Rey only briefly mentions Campbell's disappointing foray into pseudoscience, simply stating, "His eternal quest for undiscovered fields of knowledge led him into what I considered cultist beliefs, and I fought against those both privately and publicly."

I found the book in a used book store in Sand Springs, OK. I paid a dollar for it.