NIGHTFALL by Isaac Asimov

‘Nightfall’ is Isaac Asimov’s most famous short story, and the one which catapulted him to fame.

According to Asimov’s autobiography, Campbell asked Asimov to write the story after discussing with him a quotation from Ralph Waldo Emerson:

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!

Campbell disagreed, and instead scoffed: “I think men would go mad.”

The story is brief, as befits the sharp and short blasphemous joke.

(I have been warned away from reading the novelization, which I have not. Nor have I been curious: any additional material would be grossly deleterious to the point of the yarn.)

This story is a paean to secularism.

There is a recurring materialist motif in Asimov’s fiction, namely, that men are ‘blank-slate’ creatures with no nature, or, rather, their nature is infinitely malleable, and can be established, or, rather, programmed, by environment and upbringing to conform to any arbitrary standard.

That this idea is illogical is never addressed in any story. The idea that men uphold the ideas upbringing but not truth compels, if true, is an idea that itself is upheld due to compulsion, not truth.

We see this motif in his novels CAVES OF STEEL and THE NAKED SUN, as well as his short stories ‘Strikebreaker’ and ‘It’s Such A Beautiful Day’, where things neurotic in our upbringing, agoraphobia, claustrophobia, haphephobia, cloacaphobia, are portrayed as perfectly normal, or, at least, tragically invincible, in cultures dominated by, let us say, overpopulation, teleportation, robotics or waste-recycling.

The point of all such stories is to persuade the unwary teen reader that the customs and traditions of our own culture are equally arbitrary and irrational.

‘Nightfall’ is the most famous and well-written of these men-as-robots type tales, due to the hand of Campbell adding some poetical purple prose to the climax, in a fashion notably uncharacteristic of Asimov’s dry, dull wont.

The story is constructed in a workmanlike fashion. The setting is a planet of whose six suns keep it in perpetual daylight, but who, once each thousand years, suffers a multiple solar eclipse, allowing the men of the world to see the stars.

The forgettable main character talks to several people, a historian, a psychiatrist, an astronomer, all equally forgettable, and it is established that the civilization here has never developed artificial lights, and, apparently, has no mining industry nor photographic darkrooms.

It is to be noted that the men and woman of Lagash talk, dress, deport themselves exactly as men of 1941 New York. There is not even a hint of archaic or oriental phrases as one might encounter in a tale by Jack Vance or Cordwainer Smith. Nothing whatever is strange or unearthly about this world. There is not a six-limbed green Martian or shaggy dinosaur in sight, no visiphones, no flying cars. There is no hint that other regions of the planet exist. Neither eastern seas nor northern mountains are mentioned.

This is deliberate craftsmanship on the part of Asimov: any hint that this world was not exactly the same as our own, except that it never knew night, would spoil the effect.

One reason why this story is so famous is this simplicity. It is a thought experiment pared down to its ironic punchline. It is as elegant as a myth, with no story telling elements to distract from the end effect.

Now, it is clear that the characters of this world are men who share our human psychology, not aliens who have a mental defect unknown to our species, because otherwise the story has no point and no impact.

The clues fall into place one by one, as it is revealed that once every thousand years civilization destroys itself by arson, and then the nightfall happens, and, lo and behold, not only are the peoples robbed of light, but their world is inside a globular cluster, so the number and brightness of the stars is much greater than Earth’s sky, and, this is so impressive to to them, that they all set their houses on fire trying to generate light to see by. But they also go insane. The end.

Here is a memorable flourish of Campbellian prose mentioned above:

… With the slow fascination of fear, he lifted himself on one arm and turned his eyes toward the blood-curdling blackness of the window.

Through it shone the stars!

Not Earth’s feeble thirty-six hundred Stars visible to the eye; Lagash was in the center of a giant cluster. Thirty thousand mighty suns shone down in a soul-searing splendor that was more frighteningly cold in its awful indifference than the bitter wind that shivered across the cold, horribly bleak world…

For so famous a story it is incredibly stupid, and to enjoy it, one really has to be of the same scoffing mind-set as Campbell mocking Emerson.

One also has to lack a certain scientific worldview, and adhere to the secular cynicism so popular among intellectuals between the wars.

You see, this is actually an anti-science fiction story. Science fiction is fiction about science, that is, about man’s attempts to imagine the universe as it really is.

The point of ‘Nightfall’, made with undisguised unambiguity, is that you can’t.

“Imagine darkness – everywhere. No light, as far as you can see. The houses, the trees, the fields, the earth, the sky – black! And stars thrown in, for all I know – whatever they are. Can you conceive it?”

“Yes, I can,” declared Theremon truculently.

And Sheerin slammed his fist down upon the table in sudden passion. “You lie! You can’t conceive that. Your brain wasn’t built for the conception any more than it was built for the conception of infinity or of eternity. You can only talk about it. A fraction of the reality upsets you, and when the real thing comes, your brain is going to be presented with the phenomenon outside its limits of comprehension. You will go mad, completely and permanently! There is no question of it!”

No question, eh? None? Theremon won’t just go mildly neurotic for a year and a half? No, it will be madness, complete and permanent. Its just the way his brain is “built.”

Note that in this scene, the characters discuss no experiment, no witnesses, no reasoning, no proof: just a conclusion. This is what I mean when I call it an anti-science story.

Science fiction stories are myths of the scientific age. They tell the same stories epics of long ago tell, but dressed in spacesuits. They are, in effect, traveler’s tales, but instead of exotic isles or lands beyond far mountains, the world of tomorrow is the setting.

Science fiction either tells of the wonder of the world scientific progress reveals, or warns of the danger of technology grown beyond human wisdom.

‘Nightfall’ is a slap in the face to both. There is no wonder and no warning.

There is no warning to be had, because this is not a Frankenstein story about the dangers of meddling with atomic radiation or monkeying with time travel or whatnot.

In nearly every other John W Campbell Jr story I have read, or stories suggested by him, his emphasis was on using scientific reasoning to solve problems. Not here.

Nothing any human does or does not do has any possible effect on the outcome. No one anticipates the coming catastrophe and organizes a cadre of blind men to guard a time capsule or something.

The planet Lagash can never have any scientific progress beyond one thousand years of development, because the periodic worldwide arson destroys all records.

Instead of feeling the awe and wonder at the scientific vistas of the stars in their glory, humans are such helpless apes that all we can do is scream and burn and destroy when the cosmos turns out to be one where the sky goes dark periodically.

I had heard it said that the size of the universe, being bigger to the eye by night than by day, is what drive the men of Lagash insane: the shock of seeing infinite light years filled with giant, roaring suns. Nonsense. No one sees any more light years by day or night, nor is there any basis for size comparisons. In both cases, whether under daylight sky or night sky, the heavens overhead look like a dome.

The idea that a cloud of little white twinkling lights in a big dome would scare you is about a sensible as saying the same thing of a cloud of lightning-bugs seen in the gloom beneath the apex of the Jefferson Memorial.

But, no, in this story, seeing the stars come out is like beholding in paralyzed horror the cuttlefish face of Cthulhu looming above the crooked towers of hideously non-Euclidean R’Lyeh as it emerges from the waters of the Pacific — except that HP Lovecraft at least allowed his hero to hit the monster in the skull with the prow of a boat before escaping. Here, everyone just runs in circles, screaming and lighting his hair on fire.

I get the joke. Honest, I do.

I used to be an atheist, and any hint of piety or honor paid to the divine things found in nature was something of an annoyance to me, and, like Campbell, I used to quite enjoy sneering and smirking at the lowliness of inferior homo sapiens, those presumptuous apes, who thought themselves so akin to angels.

It is kind of funny to see the hairless monkeys mocked. You humans think yourselves the Lords of Creation, but the only reason why you do not go insane every evening when the stars come out is because it happens once a night!

Had Campbell and Asimov been discussing some other quote, for example, one praising the glory of the ocean, where a poet spoke of how men upon first beholding the sea, would talk in wonder for a thousand years of the mysterious and fathomless restlessness, we would have gotten a similar story, perhaps called ‘Tidefall’.

If you ever saw a place where the world was entirely covered with undrinkable water from horizon to horizon, then you’d go mad for sure! 

The story has a bitter and startling tang of something by Shirly Jackson or Flannery O’Connor, which reveals a dark and troubling truth about human nature.

Except, in this case, the truth about human nature is absent, or, rather the very opposite of what real human nature is like is portrayed. So the story is saying nothing worth hearing.

Wonder, awe, truth and beauty would become arson and madness to men brought up in a different environment?  Phooey.

‘Nightfall’ is a good reminder that the Hosts of Heaven are not to be mocked, and that if we did see them in all their true glory, why, yes, indeed, knowing suddenly our own sinfulness and smallness, the proudest among us might well go mad.