August 31, 2012 § Leave a comment
I’m rather embarrassed to say that I first learned who Isaac Asimov was when a writer friend of mine told me about her dog. “His name is Asimov,” she said with the air of someone sharing a joke or revealing an amusing sort of secret. The name “Asimov” was familiar, certainly, but I really had no idea who he was. Someone science-y? That sounded right.
I eventually googled the name, so I knew who Isaac Asimov was by the time I entered this class, but I’d never read one of his stories before. I’m a self-proclaimed fan of “soft” science fiction, where the emotions and human reaction to whatever scientific feat or quirk are more important than the science itself. “Hard” science fiction had always seemed too technical, too cold. (Having never really read any hard science fiction, I admit to being rather prejudiced from the start). As a pre-med, I’d read more than enough scientific papers—I didn’t need that sort of thing bleeding into my fiction.
I was surprised, then, by how much I enjoyed “Nightfall.” Admittedly, our relationship didn’t start off well. I rolled my eyes so hard when the first two characters to which we were introduced were “Aton 77” and “Theremon 762.” Numbered names? I thought. Really?
I read a little more. How exactly does one “gesture peremptorily?” Could I learn?
(I can be very judgmental while reading. It’s a fault.)
Now that I’ve probably offended all the Asimov fans out there (and possibly all science fiction fans in general), I’ll go on to say that by the time I hit page 6, I’d forgotten about my complaints. By the time I finished the story, I was calling up my friend to tell her to read this story, because it was so intriguing.
As I said before, my prejudiced complaint of hard sci-fi was how it placed more importance on the science itself than on the people’s response to said science. “Nightfall” didn’t skimp on explanation regarding how the astrological spheres of its world were arranged, and how so-and-so law had been discovered, and such, but at the same time, it explored in depth the idea of a civilization raised without darkness. It turned out to be my favorite kind of story: a What If? kind of story.
I was fascinated by the notions Asimov raised, how ideas that we hold to be the bedrock of life (the day/night cycle) might be seen as utterly absurd by people in another situation. I loved the exploration of the human psyche (even if I found some of the ideas a bit unbelievable), especially with regards to preconceptions and fear. Would a person who has never seen complete darkness be so frightened by it as to be driven mad?
“Nightfall” has certainly convinced me to seek out more of Asimov’s stories, and I look forward to seeing what other preconceptions I have about hard science fiction might be broken.
Also, next time I see my friend with Asimov the dog, I can be in on the joke.
September 16, 2011 § Leave a comment
What would happen if we suddenly became deprived of a resource we have never been without?
It is a question that I have been asking myself since reading Isaac Asimov’s Nightfall. Watching the slow decent into terror and chaos as the inevitability of darkness seeped in was particularly frightening to me because I can see some truth to Asimov’s portrayal of human response to crisis. Asimov smartly includes multiple characters to capture many of the likely responses to crisis, from Theremon’s paralyzing fear to Aton’s desperate religious fanaticism. It is mob mentality at its most extreme: could we destroy ourselves through our own uncontrollable fear?
Although it would be easy to say that we are not likely to experience anything like the situation on Lagash in our lifetime, it is actually more relevant than it first appears. How many third world countries lack access to clean water or food? How often do we hear stories of armed militias fighting over access to a well in Africa or gangs stealing and selectively distributing food meant to be for all hungry citizens? Perhaps to a lesser extent but even more relevant to Americans, how have industrialized nations responded to the threat of a world oil shortage? It is an uncomfortable thought that fear may perhaps be our most powerful emotion. At the very least, history demonstrates that it is our most constraining instinct.
To me, the true horror of Asimov’s work revealed itself in a part of the story that is probably easy to overlook in the wake of the impending doom Asimov describes. This is the part in which Sheerin reveals that the destruction of Lagash’s society by fire is cyclical, hinting that society destroyed itself in its own fear at least nine times. At least in terms of Western culture, development has always been viewed as linearly progressive. To discover that we find ourselves making the same mistakes over and over again with no way out of the cycle is, to me, even more disturbing than the thought of being permanently plunged in the darkness. Without the promise of improvement, what is the purpose of working towards progress? Surely mankind is capable of change, right?
We had a discussion in class this week about the idea that just because a story unsettles us does not mean that it is effective. Thinking about the way that Nightfall created a sense of unease, however, I have to disagree. Catharsis may very well be the most important indicator of a good story, particularly one that makes us discomfited. Uneasiness in stories, like in Nightfall, almost always makes people question their understanding of something. Although it is not pleasant to think about, Nightfall succeeded in making me think of depravation and need, sanity and madness, security and vulnerability, and what these mean for human nature.
September 16, 2011 § 1 Comment
“Unsettling.” This was a term employed numerous times in class to aptly describe our reactions to a number of stories we had read. I realized that I had found several readings from the semester thus far to be “unsettling” (in a very enjoyable and stimulating kind of way), in the sense that I was somewhat mentally uncomfortable while reading them, and they seemed to be going against some ingrained current of my mind. A few stories I had noted to be particularly unsettling, so I set out to find the common thread of discomfort in these stories. Surprisingly quickly, almost as if some corner of my mind had been eagerly awaiting this exact query in order to proudly produce its carefully crafted answer, I realized that, in almost all cases, the stories I had found most unsettling were those in which humans are not cognizant of what is truly going on…they are ignorant of the fact that reality has somehow changed.
In “Sound of Thunder,” for example, I was disturbed by the fact that, after Eckels stepped off the path in the past and thus altered the present, the people in the present world to which he returned had no idea of what he had done, or that the past had been affected and the present thus changed. In “Brooklyn Project,” as the present is being changed as a result of their exploration of and interference with the past, none of the characters are aware of what is actually taking place; particularly chilling is the closing line spoken by “the thing that had been the acting secretary to the executive assistant on press relations”: “Nothing has changed!” In “Nightfall,” the true horror of Aton is not in the impending destruction of civilization, but rather: “We didn’t know anything…we couldn’t know.”
I think that such stories demonstrate that, in our heart of hearts, we are terrified of human ignorance, or human failure to perceive reality, things as they truly are. At first, I felt that this concept should not disturb us if, like many of the characters in the stories, we are ignorant of our own ignorance, not knowing that there are things we do not know, forces acting upon us and our present reality that we do not perceive. Why should it matter if there are things which we do not know, if we do not know that we do not know them? Yet this lurking doubt—that we also, like the people in the stories we read, are ignorant of our own ignorance—haunts us. We are petrified that we are not in control, that we are not somehow outside the system, manipulating it, but rather are a part of the system, unknowingly being manipulated. We theorize, experiment, and quantify in an effort to assert our control of the universe and establish our privileged position on a higher plane of existence than the rest of the world, yet, buried deep in our hearts but occasionally escaping into the space between the lines of our literature, we secretly wonder…What if we’re not? We hear the question, though often we can’t quite define or express it, and find it thought-provoking; we unexpectedly hear its echo in our own hearts and find it…unsettling.