If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore, and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God! – Ralph Waldo Emerson
John W. Campbell, the editor of the magazine Astounding Science Fiction (later called Analog Science Fiction and Fact) from late 1937 until his death in 1971, didn’t agree with Emerson. Rather, he said, “I think men would go mad.”
That contention formed the basis for Isaac Asimov’s 1941 short story, “Nightfall.” As related in Asimov’s autobiography,* Campbell asked Asimov to write the story after the two discussed Emerson’s quote. And Asimov put together a story that combines psychology, astronomy, archeology and religion, a story that remains potent today, even more than seventy years after its publication. How potent? It’s been some decades since I last read the story, but it’s stayed vivid enough in my memory for me to discuss it at length yesterday with a clerk at a downtown used bookstore.
Asimov’s story takes place on a planet called Lagash. Here’s the synopsis, somewhat abridged and edited, from Wikipedia:
The fictional planet Lagash . . . is located in a stellar system containing six suns (Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta are the only ones named in the short story), which keep the whole planet continuously illuminated; total darkness is unknown, and as a result so are all the stars outside the planet’s stellar system.
A group of scientists from Saro University begin to make a series of related discoveries: Sheerin 501, a psychologist, researches the effects of prolonged exposure to darkness; Siferra 89, an archaeologist, finds evidence of multiple cyclical collapses of civilization which have occurred regularly about every 2000 years, and Beenay 25 is an astronomer who has discovered irregularities in the orbit of Lagash around its primary sun. Beenay takes his findings to his superior at the university, Aton, who formulated the Theory of Universal Gravitation. This prompts the astronomers at Saro University to seek the cause of this anomaly. Eventually they discover that the only possible cause of the deviation is an astronomical body that orbits Lagash.
Beenay, through his friend Theremon 762, a reporter, has learned some of the beliefs of the group known as the Cult. They believe the world would be destroyed in a darkness with the appearance of stars that unleash a torrent of fire. Beenay combines what he has learned about the repetitive collapses at the archaeological site, and the new theory of potential eclipses; he concludes that once every 2049 years the one sun visible is eclipsed, resulting in a brief “night.” His theory is that this “night” was so horrifying to the people who experienced it that they desperately sought out any light source to try to drive it away, particularly by frantically starting fires which burned down and destroyed their successive civilizations.
Since the current population of Lagash has never experienced general darkness, the scientists conclude that the darkness would traumatize the people and that they would need to prepare for it. When nightfall occurs, however, the scientists (who have prepared themselves for darkness) and the rest of the planet are most surprised by the sight of hitherto invisible stars outside the six-star system filling the sky. Unfortunately, because the inhabitants of Lagash never saw other stars in the sky, their civilization had come to believe that their six-star system contained the entirety of the universe. In one horrifying instant, anyone gazing at the night sky – the first night sky which they have ever known – is suddenly faced with the reality that the universe contains many millions upon billions of stars: the awesome, horrifying realization of just how vast the universe truly is drives them insane. The short story concludes with the arrival of the night and a crimson glow that was “not the glow of a sun,” with the implication that societal collapse has occurred once again.
I first came across “Nightfall” in the early 1970s, when nearly all of my leisure reading was science fiction, clearing the shelves of the work of Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert A. Heinlein, Ray Bradbury (whose fiction, as I’ve noted here before, frequently crossed the barrier into fantasy) and any other writer whose work crossed my path in company with the work of those four giants. And one day, I chanced in a bookstore to find a volume titled The Science Fiction Hall of Fame. And in its pages, I found “Nightfall.”
It turns out that, in 1965, the Science Fiction Writers of America had established the Nebula Awards, a science fiction equivalent of the Grammys or the Oscars. (The Nebula Awards thus joined the Hugo Awards given by the World Science Fiction Society since 1953.) And in 1968, in an attempt to honor deserving work published before the Nebula Awards were established, the American writers group selected the contents of, and then published, three volumes of its Hall of Fame: one volume of short stories and two of novellas. I had chanced upon the first volume, and in its foreword, I believe, it was noted that of all the short stories selected for the Hall of Fame, Asimov’s “Nightfall” had received the most votes and was thus considered the best science fiction story written before 1965.
I finished the first volume, concurring with the voters’ opinions about the quality of “Nightfall,” and I soon bought and read the two companion volumes. About twenty-five years later, during my scuffling in the mid-1990s, I sold the three volumes and the rest of my science fiction collection so that my cats could eat. In recent years, I’ve thought about replacing those three volumes, perhaps in hardcover. And I’ve pondered the tale of “Nightfall” at various and odd times over the years; like all good fiction, it’s stayed with me. And in an entirely unexpected manner, it came back into my life again yesterday.
I had books to return to the public library, and the Texas Gal and I had things to get at the grocery store, so I thought I’d run to the library, find something new to read and then pick her up from work. A fine plan, except that the library was closed for yesterday’s Presidents Day holiday. I put my books into the exterior book drop and looked at my watch. I had more time available than I wanted to spend sitting in the car with nothing to read, and not quite enough time to make it worthwhile to go home. So I headed to the used bookstore on St. Germain, a couple blocks upstream from the Texas Gal’s office, looking for something in paperback that I’d not read before or at least for a few decades.
I’d recently posted at Facebook a meme offering a cogent quote from Isaac Asimov, so I headed to the beginning of the science fiction shelves. And I found Nightfall, a 1990 novel written by Asimov and Robert Silverberg, another name well-remembered from my early 1970s’ science fiction binge. The blurb on the back cites the 1941 short story, and goes on: “But the short story isn’t the whole story. Now, Dr. Asimov has teamed with multiple Hugo and Nebula Award winner Robert Silverberg to explore and expand one of the most awe-inspiring concepts in the history of science fiction. In this novel, you will witness Nightfall – and much more. You will learn what happens at Daybreak.”
There are a few changes: The planet is now called Kalgash, and the suns have different names, but there are familiar characters beginning to face familiar circumstances. I’m forty pages in, and I’m hooked.
And to close this with music, here’s the spare and somewhat unsettling track “Nightfall” by the Incredible String Band. It’s the last track on The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter, which came out, coincidentally, the same year as that first volume of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame: 1968.
*Wikipedia does not specify which of Asimov’s autobiographies includes the tale of the writing of “Nightfall.” Asimov wrote three autobiographies, and after his 1992 death, his widow, Janet Jeppson Asimov, edited the three into one volume, supplemented with some of the writer’s letters. That fourth volume is titled It’s Been A Good Life.