Nightfall is based on a short story that Isaac Asimov wrote in 1941 and which was then expanded into a novel by Isaac Asimov and Robert Silverberg in 1990. It chronicles the experiences of an alien civilization on a planet with six suns, completely illuminating the surface at all times. That is, except for once every 2049 years when the suns disappear and the stars come out. The story is broken into three parts: Twilight (before the darkness), Nightfall (the period of darkness), and Daybreak (everything that happens afterwards). The characters were a good cross-section of different societal views, though the number of non-scientists and females were under represented (yes, there is a correlation between the two even in this alien society). The book forgoes alien terminology such as vorks in place of miles, making it more accessible to the general public. Overall I found that while the story fell into some predictable trappings, it kept me wanting more making its 7.5/10 well earned. A word of caution though: after reading most of the book in one sitting at night, I started to believe that it would not be light again. This is one of the few times I advocate that you take a break at the end of each section.
The first thing to discuss is the Tunnel of Mystery which is a long enclosure resulting in sensory deprivation for 15 “minutes”. It’s described as completely dark and without sound of movement or any wind. This is similar to what astronauts are put through to test how they cope with solitude, and from our human experiences we find that we start to hallucinate and focus on anything that makes sound, such as our own heartbeat and breathing. Without external stimulation it can be a traumatic experience, which is exactly what happens to most of the aliens who take the ride. However, most people can handle sensory deprivation tanks for more than 15 minutes; it’s likely that the constant sunlight on this alien world caused its inhabitants to have a more extreme reaction. The only thing that bugs me about the description of the ride is how it can accommodate multiple people, yet anyone can exit the ride and lights will come on. Wouldn’t that ruin the experience for everyone else?
Then there’s the excavation of the ruins. It’s true that the desert can obscure great swaths of history, and right now we’re using satellites to try and see the outlines of completely buried pyramids in Egypt. I liked hearing how they found a historical record of a great cataclysmic every 2000 years or so because it was in perfect contrast to the mysticism of the Apostles of Flame who said the same thing. I feel that the authors gave a good depiction of how archaeology is done (how many fires were there?) and especially of how science and religion intermingle without trying to agree.
Which brings us to the discovery of Kalgash Two. When Beenay 25 first realized that there was something wrong with his measurements or theory, he tried to recalculate everything from scratch and then asked someone else to help him with the calculations. This just confirmed that he had done everything correctly, so he then approached his advisor and explained the situation. I thought they might have stumbled onto the theory of relativity, but it turns out there was another massive body in the system on a highly elliptical orbit; an orbit that would have it eclipse the single sun in the sky and plunge half the world into darkness for at least 9 hours.
I was disappointed in the small-world nature of the story. Beenay 25 discovers the new planet and works under Athor 77, the person who originally created the theory of gravitation. Beenay also knows Theremon 762, a highly prolific reporter who’s been assigned a story on the Apostles of Flame. Then again, Beenay also knows Sheerin 501 (the psychologist who investigated the Tunnel of Mystery) as he’s living with Sheerin’s niece and they both are professors at the same university. Finally, Beenay also knows Siferra 89, the leading archaeologist on the Beklimot dig, because they met five years ago at an inner-departmental meeting and became friends. The fact that everyone works for the same university, and that Beenay knows everyone except the Apostles of Flame, seems a little far-fetched (especially when you consider that all the important work each of them is conducting is related and happens within a year of each other).
Now Nightfall is coming and the situation has changed. Athor has talked to Folimun 66 (the representative for the Apostles of Flame) and Theremon has changed from believing that darkness will come to strongly feeling that the scientists are over-reacting and buying into what the Apostles of Flame are spewing. I liked how the two students (Faro 24 and Yimot 70) tried to replicate the star experience by buying an apartment and poking holes in a sheet. It didn’t make a lot of sense that the Apostles of Flame would attack the observatory after they helped verify their predictions, but for some reason they didn’t want the eclipse to be recorded (more on this later).
Let me quickly touch on the science that’s been presented in the story thus far. Could they have detected a large planet that they can’t see using the theory of graviation? Yes, and it was by observing anomalies in Uranus’ orbit that astronomers hypothesized that Neptune existed and later observed it. Could a planet be invisible to our telescopes due to its colouration? This is less likely but still possible, as it’s hard for us to see planets on a brightly lit day and there are certain wavelengths of light that are harder to see through the atmosphere.
Would they really have been driven mad? By darkness, no, because that’s something that was scary but could be explained and was something they had experience with. In fact, the scientists had a very simple solution for combating that, which was using torches. And where darkness would have been scary, stars would have been terrifying. It’s no longer the darkness they prepared themselves for, but something completely alien and unexpected. (As an aside, I was slightly annoyed at how Sheerin’s explanation of the stars was postponed twice and then didn’t amount to much.)
Too many important people survived. It’s not surprising that Folimun survived, but having Theremon, Beenay, Sheerin, Siferra, and Yimot make it through means that 75% of the main characters in the observatory survived. This is very surprising given how we hear that there are bodies everywhere, equipment was being wrecked, and fires started all over. Of course, I understand that most of the main characters survived so they could have different experiences in the post-apocalyptic world, and both Yimot and Sheerin die shortly after. But still, 75% survival rate for an onslaught is a little extreme.
Then there’s how Theremon luckily meets up with almost everyone who survives. He randomly bumps into Sheerin and is told that everyone is heading to Amgando Park and that Yimot is dead. This is followed by meeting Siferra after trying to start a fire for the first time (she’s part of the Fire Patrol, so this is only marginally more sensible than the first encounter). Having Siferra and Theremon take the same same road as Beenay is reasonable, but having Beenay at the first checkpoint was very luckily. It made sense that they would be able to only get through a few sections on the highway, but it was convenient that near the end of their authorized trip, they stumble on Folimun to wrap up the story.
I expected there to be a big twist with Mondior since we never met him but he played a large role in the story. Most of the time, hidden people turn out to be people we already met, and in this case it was simply a cover for Folimun which was an elegant solution. I didn’t like why Folimun attacked the university though; he says he was pretending to be a wild-eyed fanatic and just trying to convince the scientists to leave, but why didn’t he say that? The scientists had confirmed everything he knew and while they distanced themselves from the Apostles of Flame, they were on speaking terms and able to help each other out. Their conflict feels contrived.
My other big issue is Siferra’s character. In the first third of the story she’s pegged as completely uninterested in physical relationships, which is a reasonable characterization for a career-focused woman in a male dominated workforce. However, it still feels stereotypical, especially when she slowly falls for the womanizer Theremon who realizes that he has a softer side and that he loves Siferra. On the positive side, this is at most a subplot so its predictability isn’t much of an issue.
The story was well written and I enjoyed the characters and their interactions. I loved the idea of the stars only coming out every 2049 years and causing mass panic, combined with trying to fight the coming storm. It was a very enjoyable read. And to the people of Kalgash, may there always been a sun in your sky.