Thursday, October 13, 2011

Radio: Nightfall (Dimension X)

Although the announcement at the close of the episode shows they were hoping to come back at some point, I wonder if there wasn't some consciousness, in the choice of "Nightfall" as the last story of the season, that this might, in fact, be the end.  But then, I suppose "Requiem" would have worked for that, too.

"Nightfall" is one of the all-time classic science fiction stories.  Sometimes, though, I wonder if a story's classic status isn't perpetuated and amplified simply by the fact that everyone always calls it a classic.  Not that I don't like "Nightfall"; it just strikes me as a very good story rather than One of the Greatest Science Fiction Stories Ever Written.  For what it's worth, Asimov agreed.  In 1979, he wrote that he considered "Nightfall" only the fourth best of his own stories, never mind of all time.

For one thing, it's mostly concept and not enough story.  This story was famously inspired by Astounding editor John W. Campbell reading Asimov the quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson which opens both story and episode.  Campbell felt Emerson was wrong: "I think men would go mad," he said.  And the resulting story is more a dramatized explanation of why Campbell was right than it is about characters actually doing things.

Also, the world-building is pretty feeble.  There are several references to "days"-- surely a meaningless concept on Lagash, which almost always has at least two suns in the sky.  And what function does an observatory serve on such a world?  I suppose it could be a solar observatory, but I don't think it occurred to Asimov that photographic plates designed on a planet where it's always daytime would almost certainly be far too weak to capture images of stars.

It beats me how the solar system in this story works.  It seems to me that all the population of Lagash must be on the same hemisphere for there to be universal darkness-- unless the suns could perfectly line up, one behind the other, with an eclipsing object in front.  And that's not the case here, where Asimov writes of suns setting, and only the last sun being eclipsed.  Further, the cities would probably have to be fairly close together for the eclipse to be total in all of them.  Humans on Lagash may have evolved on an Australia-sized continent, so far separated from the others (if any) that they all still live there.  It would be nice if Asimov had dropped some clues in this respect.

Asimov violates his point of view at the end.  Up until then, the story had Theremon 762 as its point-of-view character, and kept itself to what people on Lagash would know.  But in order to explain that Lagash is in a cluster, Asimov has to step back suddenly to an omniscient viewpoint, explicitly contrasting Lagash and Earth.

Finally, I find it tough to believe that any civilization that can build enclosed spaces could go so long without developing artificial light, eternal day or no.  How did they build the Tunnel of Mystery, for instance, without it?  And presumably they have darkrooms to develop their photographic plates.

It's so easy to pick holes in this story that I find it far more difficult to determine why it is that the story works, regardless.  Asimov does a good job gradually building a pervasive sense of doom, to the point that there's almost pathos in how under-prepared the scientists turn out to be.  He brings in the pieces of the puzzle one at a time-- the collapse of past civilizations, the story of the Tunnel of Mystery.  He presents the conflict between science and religion, making both sides prideful and dismissive of the other.  (Similarly to Heinlein in "Universe," Asimov presents religion and tradition as having some answers, however garbled, that science would do well to pay heed to.)  In short, he makes us worry that we're watching a society circling the drain, not quite aware how much danger they're in.  Which makes the whole story a little tragic.

So what about the "Best Science Fiction Story Ever" thing?  Remember that this story was written in 1941.  It's been fashionable since at least the 1960's to ride Asimov down for having a flat, utilitarian writing style.  But all you have to do is read some science fiction from the 1930's, as I've been doing lately, and you'll gain a whole new appreciation for style that's clear, simple, and straightforward.

And for similar reasons, the readers of 1941 may have appreciated exactly what I dunned the story for above-- being all concept.  At least Asimov took a concept and saw it through to its logical bitter end.  I've been reading eighty-year-old back issues of Wonder Stories (for a blog feature that I've never gotten around to writing), and I can't tell you how many times the stories have frustrated me by taking a halfway interesting idea, and just using it as background for some mind-numbingly rote action-adventure-romance involving giant bugs, or gangsters, or fleets of eighty grazillion spaceships blasting away at each other.

Before we get to the episode, sorry about the audio quality on this one.  It's pretty rough.  Moreover, that sort of glassy persistent background noise shows that it was over-compressed at some point in its digital history.

Ernest Kinoy took a different tack in adapting "Nightfall" than he did with "Requiem" the previous week.  As you may remember, he stuck pretty close to Heinlein's story, scene by scene, exchange by exchange, mostly just rephrasing the story's dialogue into something more natural to hear actors say.  By contrast, Kinoy retains very little of Asimov's text, and freely juggles events to improved dramatic effect.  As I said, the story is something of a dramatized thesis; it frequently errs on the side of over-explaining.

Kinoy rearranges this information to make it a bit snappier, and to add some drama to the story.  The story is essentially one continuous scene.  Kinoy breaks it up a bit.  He has Theremon's interview with Aton turn out to be abortive.  Then he has Theremon go to Sor, the leader of the Cult, to get his point of view.  Similarly, Kinoy later has Theremon interview an engineer from the power station, and an old cultist.  This improves the story dramatically in several ways.  It increases the pace, it opens up the story, it puts more of a face on a group that, in the story, we hear about mostly second-hand from the scientists, and it also makes Theremon a better reporter.

Later in the story, Sheerin, the psychologist, tells Theremon about the unfortunate people driven mad in the Tunnel of Mystery.  Kinoy dramatizes it a little by introducing us briefly to Latimer, one of the victims.  (In the story, Latimer was a completely different character: the cultist who destroyed the photographic plates.  Kinoy assigns that action to Sor himself, and so he was able to recycle the name here.)

In a couple of places, though, Kinoy loses a little in the process.  He fails to explain the significance of the photographic plates: they're to be used to photograph the stars for later study.  And he condenses the dialogue about the scientists belatedly inventing the candle.  Whereas Asimov had Sheerin talk of "the pithy core of coarse water reeds," Kinoy has the animal grease "packed around a wick."  If they haven't had candles or lamps up to now, would they even have a word for "wick" in this sense?

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