The final book by Isaac Asimov on my shelves is another anthology. Nightfall One is the first half of a two volume collection of stories by Asimov, first published in 1969 (as a single volume). There are five stories in the book originally published between 1941 & 1951, with introductions by Asimov. One thing that struck me about these stories are that they have aliens in them, which is relatively unusual for Asimov. They’re also further demonstrations that Asimov is more of an ideas storyteller than a character one. I’d prefer to have both but at his best Asimov’s ideas are good enough to carry the somewhat shallow characters (and it’s not a surprise that the story I think is the weakest in this volume also has the least “Big Idea” to it).
This is (as Asimov points out in his introduction) often regarded as Asimov’s best story – he finds this a bit irritating because he wrote it in 1941 and feels that surely with practice he should’ve improved. The story is set on a planet which orbits one of a cluster of six stars. Every couple of thousand years there’s an eclipse when there’s only one sun in view and the people who have evolved there see darkness & the stars for the first time. Civilisation collapses, the people return to barbarism & the cycle begins again. Technically these are aliens, but it’s more an exploration of what people & society would be like if this was the case than any attempt at creating aliens. It is the best story in this collection, in my opinion. Partly because of the idea itself and the way Asimov plausibly extrapolates what effect never seeing darkness would have on society. And partly because of the little touches that show just how hard it can be to overcome cultural & biological conditioning with your intellect, like the various characters trying to insist that they themselves aren’t affected by darkness. And how even when you think you’re thinking outside the box you can still be blinded by your assumptions – like the scientists who are going to photograph these “stars” they’ve theorised the existence of talking about how there might even be as many as a dozen of them because they have no comprehension of the scale of the universe.
Second best story of the collection, for me. They’re actually ordered in publication order, but for me it was almost in order of quality as well. This is a Bradbury-esque tale of a human spaceship that has gone to an another planet and an alien lifeform has stowed away on the return trip with intent to convert Earth life to the gaia-esque existence that the alien life has. The captain of the previous spaceship to investigate this planet had blown up his ship when he realised that the alien lifeforms were converting his crew. Best bits are the segments from the perspective of the alien, which is satisfyingly not-human. It’s disguised as a piece of wire & is having to hold itself back from rescuing these “life fragments” as it thinks of earthlife – it is trying to wait till it reaches Earth.
A future where we have interstellar travel, and have met five alien species. All share several characteristics that humans don’t, and in fact humans are more like diseased aliens (in some specific ways). This is one of those “awful truth” stories – by the end of the story we find out why humans are different & it’s not because we’re wonderful 😉 The protagonist is Rose Smollett, a biologist in her mid-30s, and also central to the story is her husband. She’s only been married a bit under a year, and is still (mostly happily) surprised her husband should’ve wanted to marry her. This personal plot intertwines with the interstellar politics, and by the end of the story we & Rose know the “awful truth” about her marriage, too. Very very 1950s social mores, in a way that dates the story so much that is has to be “alternate history” rather than “set in the future”. But still reasonably good.
“Breeds There a Man … ?”
This is a “what if” story where the universe is not quite the way it seems – makes me think of some of the 1930s stories in Before the Golden Age where the planets are eggs or other such flights of fantasy. This isn’t as extremely fantastical but it’s still in that sort of category. The main character is an atomic physicist but we never get his perspective, instead it’s all told via the various police & mental health professionals he encounters when he has a breakdown. He’s figured out what the world really is, and is driven to suicidal thoughts because of it. I liked it better than “Hostess” – although the “awful truth” here is equally as implausible I thought it was a cooler idea to base a story round.
For me this was the weakest of the stories in the anthology. Several men are on a spaceship when it’s captured by an alien race with whom humanity are at war. They aren’t comrades, but are flung together by circumstance so there is much tension and eventually one of the least likely of the men to do something heroic manages to carry out a daring plan & they rescue themselves. As I said in my intro paragraph to this post wasn’t really a “Big Idea” to this one so all there was to carry it was the characters, but sadly I found them shallow & the story boring.