Night and Day: Lessons Learned from Isaac Asimov

Written by Michael David Ares

Everyone who cares about science fiction (or even the broader category of speculative fiction) should read Isaac Asimov’s 1941 short story “Nightfall,” if only for the fact that in 1968 the Science Fiction Writers of America voted it the best short story from the pre-Nebula Awards era. Plus it’s a classic example from the Golden Age of the genre, and it remains interesting and worthwhile even after three quarters of a century.

I had read the story several times as a child after discovering Asimov’s robot novels, and recently read it again after a long hiatus as an (much older) adult. I found it still enjoyable, and also educational for me as a writer. Here are some things I learned from revisiting it, and have been able to apply in my own work.

Editors are really valuable.

The idea for “Nightfall” came from Asimov’s editor, the legendary John W. Campbell. Campbell showed him a quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson in which the philosopher/poet had suggested that “if the stars should appear one night in a thousand years,” people would “believe and adore.” Campbell disagreed with Emerson and said: “I think men would go mad.” Asimov took a cue from his editor, and the rest is science fiction history.

The reason I read the story again after all these years was because my own editor Brendan Deneen suggested that it would be interesting to explore the opposite idea of sunlight returning after a long period of darkness, as well as paying homage to the classic story, and that led to my novel Dayfall. Brendan’s editing work also improved my manuscript by leaps and bounds, of course.

I mention the importance of an editor in Asimov’s classic work, and in all writing, because those of us who do editing could use the encouragement, and those of us whose work gets critiqued by editors need the reminder that we should be grateful for them rather than resenting all the changes they want to make.

Speculative fiction doesn’t have to end up embarrassingly dated.

Other than the use of newspapers as a primary form of media, and the fact that none of the main characters are female, “Nightfall” stands up surprisingly well all these years later. It obviously was not embarrassingly dated twenty-seven years after its writing, when it was given the award in 1968, and it’s still not today. That gives me hope, knowing that science fiction doesn’t necessarily have to fall into the problem of “zeerust,” and can have a timeless quality like other genres.

Creating an entirely new world, as Asimov does in “Nightfall,” is one way of achieving that goal, of course. But a simple suggestion can be helpful for even futuristic fiction set in our own world: Don’t put any dates in the story. Then it could be happening in either the near or far future, depending on the imagination of the readers, and for those down the line it could still be in the future, or at least an alternate past or present. Omitting dates prevents the readers’ willing suspension of disbelief from “expiring” when we near or reach a certain time mentioned in the story.

On the other hand, George Orwell’s 1984 and the movie Blade Runner (Los Angeles 2019?!) have done pretty well over time, so what do I know?

It’s okay to leave questions unanswered.

I think part of the appeal of “Nightfall” is that it’s an origin story, though not of a person like a superhero. It’s the origin story of an event. None of the characters—or the reader—have ever seen what happens on the planet Lagash when the darkness falls after thousands of years of sunlight. The characters suggest different possibilities as the story counts down to Nightfall, and the reader speculates as well. Then when the fateful event arrives, the story ends almost immediately. We’re not exactly sure about what happened and why, and we definitely aren’t sure what will happen next.

This dynamic fuels the readers’ imagination and allows it to rocket into whatever eventualities we might be able to envision (to use a word picture from the Golden Age). Therefore the story lingers in the mind—not just what we have read, but what we wonder about beyond the page.

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