Art History in "Nightfall and Other Stories" by Isaac Asimov
Observations on the stories as a whole.
Reading this old paperback collection of Asimov’s stories, I was struck by how accurate the author was in predicting future technology and the huge amount of empathy he had for the characters he created. I also found him to be quite the philosopher.
In various stories, he has humans reacting to their place in the universe and to people beyond their planet. Also, instead of language being a barrier between humans and aliens, it is oxygen. Extraterrestrial beings are often depicted wearing some sort of pump that allows them to survive Earth and Earthlike environments. Additionally, humans are always disturbed by an Asimov alien's physical appearance and the way they live. In fact, humans interacting with outer space beings is, according to Asimov, more than often not, grim. War is either a potential threat or already happening. The author often has humans killing the aliens they meet.
Furthermore, between reading this anthology and I, Robot, I am fascinating by Asimov’s use of the word “Medieval”. Since his stories largely take place in the future, he uses that word to describe the era of his lifetime.
Asimov's use of art history
In this compilation, Asimov rarely makes specific references to real life art, architecture, and artists. In fact, he sometimes made up fictional versions just familiar enough to remind people of real life art and architecture, particularly people who have an education in art history. Then again, that is speculation on my part.
Now, if you keep scrolling down, you will read my analysis of references I have found in the selected stories.
I noticed something in this story about a planet's preparation for a long night ahead. I think Asimov predicted Brutalism, the architectural style known for its hard execution. According to the embedded link in the first sentence, the short story was published in 1941. In the Wikipedia link I embedded, it explains that Brutalism emerged roughly 10 years after Nightfall's publication.
I write this because Asimov labels the building where the story takes place as "Neo-Gavottian" and describes it in such a way that reminded me of Brutalist architecture. Also, if you read the Wikipedia link I embedded, it explains that Brutalism is the preferred style for places of learning and government buildings, which the building in the story the characters are in is kind of both. Furthermore, the author's description of a building entrance called to mind a Medieval fortress.
By the way, I looked up "Neo-Gavottian" and the search results ranged from quotes from this story and websites that looked really sketchy.
"In a Good Cause--"
This short story scrutinizes two people during interactions between humans and extraterrestrials. One person (Altmayer) practices civil disobedience and attempts an assassination while the other (Stock) works within the government and uses covert political intrigue. The tale is about the deconstruction of political ideals and what people do to maintain them.
This story is also about how people are remembered (or not remembered) long after they're gone. To clarify this point, it is also an exploration of how human flaws and historical facts are minimized by art that promotes ideals. To hammer this point home, Ancient Greece is referenced and the story mentions its celebrated ideals and flaws. If you want real life examples of this theme, consider the statues of historical figures in the U.S.A. and how they are depicted in art versus how they were in real life. Specifically, think of Washington DC's National Mall and its monuments to American ideals.
Physical appearance is discussed and contemplated in the story, particularly the shape of Altmayer's nose and how similar that feature is to busts either from the Antiquity era or busts in later eras influenced by Antiquity. To elaborate, Stock is using Altmayer as a tool because he considers Altmayer tailor made to look good in art intended to promote ideals.
I have come across fiction that explores the concept of flawed people who are made ideal by art and architecture. One example is the TV show . Since it took place in Washington, D.C., the series interspersed scenes of characters committing political intrigue with footage of monuments from the National Mall. The final episode ended with a pretty painting of the main character Olivia Pope who, from the first season to the last, committed acts that were awful. Scandal
Examples of Ideals found in Washington, D.C.Click thumbnail to view full-size
"Breeds There a Man"
As the Cold War demands that governments create weapons and countermeasures to survive destruction; scientists, psychiatrists, and historians debate over cultural high points of various eras in history and their relationship with war. Characters make claims that the arts flourished in the Netherlands while they were warring with Spain. True, there was a Dutch Golden Age. This discussion reminded me of reading George Augustus Moore's Modern Painting, and his observations on the various region's artistic high points from different eras and the stability of those regions that produced those pinnacles.
Besides this story, Asimov continued exploring this concept of cultural zeniths during strife in his book, I, Robot. From what I have gleaned from those two different stories, is Asimov is exploring a nuanced, complicated view of history.
But did you like it?
While there were some stories that were a little hard to follow, I did enjoy reading Asimov's stories and I found his commentaries very informative. If you want an introduction to the history of science fiction and stories that range from thoughtful to thrilling, I recommend this book.
I enjoyed these stories.
© 2018 Catherine