Isaac Asimov and Relative Insanity

I was pondering Isaac Asimov’s NIGHTFALL the other night, and meditating on how odd is the assumption on which it is based. The same assumption appears in a number of other Asimov stories

I will not summarize the tale, nor will I avoid spoilers, as I assume you know it (If not, rush right out and buy a copy of the Science Fiction Hall of Fame edited by Bob Silverberg, in order to repair your deficiency in Sci-Fi street cred).

According to Asimov, John W Campbell Jr prompted Asimov to write the story after discussing a Ralph Waldo Emerson quote:

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 which had been shown!

Campbell’s contrariwise opinion was: “I think men would go mad.”

The story itself is well-constructed as a mystery yarn, as each separate scientist, a psychologist, an archeologist, and an astronomer, discovers disturbing clues: man has an innate fear of darkness; the civilization of planet Lagash suffers regular and periodic collapses; that Lagash is a multiple star system which, only once in the thousand years, has all her suns set or eclipsed. The ending is a climax of what can only be called Lovecraftian despair: as the last light dies in the sky of a world which has never known nightfall, the scientists (going mad themselves from the horror of the darkness) see the buildings and monuments of their great city being lit afire by panicked mobs seeking some source of light in a world where no lamp has ever been invented.

Brilliant story, and all the more disturbing because it is based on an assumption never explicitly mentioned by Asimov, nor by Campbell, but which, once named, cannot be denied is present in their thoughts.

Mr Asimov enjoyed great success with this short story, and the theme is one he revisits again. In CAVES OF STEEL, for example, overpopulation on Earth requires the mass of the population to crowd into buried warrens, and the main character, as most Earthmen, having never seen the sky, are subject to agoraphobia. In THE NAKED SUN, the natives of Solaria are raised by robots and born in test tubes, and so are subject to a phobia against human contact, or even being in the same room as a living person.

In a less obvious way, even as story like ‘Its Such a Nice Day’ affirms the unspoken assumption, even though the story itself resolves itself differently.

In that story, in a society where all travel is done by instantaneous teleportation, a little boy discovers by accident that he enjoys walking outside. His mother, fearing for his sanity, calls in a psychologist who is something of a curmudgeon, not enamored of the impositions of allegedly useful technology into life, goes for a walk with the boy, and is dazed to see running water, beasts and butterflies, and the outside of his own house.  He tells the mother not to fret, and he joins the boy in an act of nonconformity by deciding himself to walk from time to time.

All of them are good stories, solidly built, well crafted. Let no one say otherwise.

But, like any story no matter how well built, when you get up from your comfy reading chair after  and are poking around in the fridge looking for leftovers, certain distracting thoughts must intrude. Did no one in the world of inexpensive teleportation go big-game hunting? No one hiked or biked or wanted to frolic in the flowers with a blushing maiden? No one owned a window, or had one of those calendars showing snow scenes or waterfalls? No one?

The story mentions ‘Africans’ who do not possess this technology, so the implication is we are dealing with an insular gated community, the suburbanites who are the subject of such scorn by lovers of progress, but (as we bend into the fridge seeing if there is a frosty can of beer left behind the ungainly open can of Spaghetti-Os ) the thought must strike us: wait. Really? They hold boot camp indoors in this world? Robots do all the outdoor maintenance work?

The same stray thoughts will perturb the placid science fiction reader at the close of any tale, merely because, once the drama and glamor of the suspension of disbelief fades, the dream seems more dreamlike. The image of a world burning itself to death while shrieking in fear at the fall of night is magnificent and terrifying. Only when you are wondering, head in the fridge, if that but of stray cheese is still good will you stop and think: wait. Did they have no mines on the world of Lagash, or miners who went underground to work them? Were there no window shutters and no bed curtains? No one ever put a bag over his head? Or closed his eyes?

Now, it is an open question in any of these stories, or any science fiction story at all, how seriously the author means for the reader to take the conceit of the story. Are we actually supposed to believe, for example, in THE SLEEPER WAKES by H.G. Wells that  mesmerism can place a man in suspended animation for decades without aging, and that compound interest on his bank account would one day consume the entire economy?

Like most yarns, I think the conceit made at the beginning of any tale of speculative fiction is something the reader takes on faith, like the conceit of a hypothetical question. The reader says tacitly, “Yes, I will accept the false-to-facts conceit of the hypo if you can spin out an entertaining yarn that keeps faith with the conceit!” For the moment the writer shows he is not keeping faith with the conceit, the story breaks like glass.

But when Campbell says “I think men would go mad” he is not spinning out a hypothetical conceit, he is criticizing the view of human nature of Emerson.

Campbell is backhanding what he sees as a saccharine piety in Emerson. Campbell thinks man is not, after all, a rational animal, but is the product of the evolution and environment of his birth and upbringing. Man is not the crown of creation, but a blind by-product of atomic and electrochemical forces in motion since the Big Bang. Man is plastic.

Any man who believes in God, who believes Man is made in the image of God, thinks man has a human nature, and, absent the disaster of Eden, a permanent nature.

This is blasphemy to the the zealous technocrat who preaches Better Living Through Technology, of which John W Campbell Jr was not merely an exemplar but a paragon. Nothing was clearer in his editorial policy than his thought that Man should conquer nature, and put the stars is his grasp and the future under his feet, through Yankee ingenuity, elbow grease, mother wit, grit and the occasional flash of genius, and working that slipstick.

Tales of techno-optimism take progress for the driver of the theme, and anything commonly thought to impede progress becomes what the lazy (or efficient) writer will wrap in the cloak of the antagonist.

This is more clear in Heinlein than in Asimov or Clarke, perhaps because he was a more efficient (or lazier) writer than Asimov, and more often had recourse to lazy stereotypes. The stereotyped foes of progress include the folly of the common man (or “chumps” as Michael Valentine Smith calls us); of religious leaders (who range from gross hucksters like Foster to scary theocrats like Nehemiah Scudder); or of bureaucrats or politicians or high-ranking military officers. (Indeed, the only bureaucrat on the whole canon of Heinlein’s work I can call sympathetic is Mr Kiku, the undersecretary of Spatial Affairs,  from STAR BEAST).

However, Isaac Asimov and Arthur C Clarke have their share of two-dimensional stereotypes fitting these categories. They don’t like commoners, godbotherers, and politicos.

Anyone who thinks the ills of Man are permanent, and the institutions (traditions of the commoners, faith of the godbotherers, laws and wars of the politicos) is a foe him who thinks the ills of man can be solved by a shiny new panacea.

There are exceptions, to be sure. I am thinking of THE GRAY PRINCE by Jack Vance, which contains the most bald-faced denunciation of any misgivings Caucasians owe conquered and displaced natives I have ever read. STARSHIP TROOPERS likewise announces the powerful theme that there will always be war, and therefore one must always be ready to fight it.

The Campbell brand of techno-optimism faded sharply in the late 60’s, but, oddly enough, the underlying assumptions did not fade in the popular mind, but took deeper root, until they seemed not assumptions but eternal truths.

One such assumption that hardened into an allegedly eternal truth is that human nature is infinitely plastic. Men are malleable. What is wrong in man can be fixed.

Human Nature, if it were only infinitely malleable, can be cured through Yankee ingenuity, elbow grease, mother wit, grit and the occasional flash of genius, and working that slipstick: such is the optimistic cry echoing through too much modern writing, both science fiction and writing that perhaps does not realize it is science fiction, or rather, pure fantasy.

Stately baldly, the conceit is absurd. The same technician who cannot free my computer of spam is going to reach into my infinitely more complex human brain and cure my various and vicious addictions to pride, envy, greed, sloth, malice, ire and lust? Really? Some clever new method of counting votes or deciding civil broils will curb the ambitions of demagogues and dictators, and sooth the deep seating malice of ancient wrongs?

Step aside, if you can, dear reader, from Campbell’s simplistic BF Skinner assumptions about what drives men mad.

Think instead of men born blind who are, through some miracle or miracle of science, cured. Are they driven mad by their first sight of stars? Or think of some mountain villager who has never seen the sea. Is he driven mad at his first sight of the ocean? Or think of someone who has never been underground. Is he certain to be bereft of his wits the moment he realized a cave roof is above him?

Do not get me wrong. I am not claiming that there are no agoraphobes or thalassaphobes or claustrophobes. I am not claiming a man who never saw rainfall in his life would not be frightened by a storm. But would he go mad? If you say he would, what does that say about your faith in the sanity of your fellow man, or of you yourself?

The conceit that the flaws innate in human nature can be cured by human ingenuity is as absurd as Campbell’s smirking backhanded slap at Emerson. What does it say about the techno-optimism of Campbell that he thinks a man would not be awed and full of wonder and touched with an intimation of the divine at his first sight of stars?

Now, as a story conceit, the malleability of human nature is of prime interest to the science fiction reader. How much indeed can be changed if our technology changes, or our laws, manners and customs?

I suggest that any story addressing that theme is science fiction, and that science fiction is not simply confined to those relatively few stories that propose all things in man’s nature are subject to change.

Can any creature who is not awed at the sight of stars really be called a human being?


ADDED LATER: I was describing ‘Nightfall’ to my thirteen year old son when it came up in the conversation turned to other things, unexpected, unthinkable, which human beings had never seen before or imagined but which science revealed. I told him about the invention of the microscope, and how, up until then, no one had even suspected the existence of ‘animacules’.

I will point out that if Leeuwenhoek had been from Lagash, upon seeing microscopic life that swarms in every drop of water, living beings too small to see, all around us, everywhere, instead of being awed at the intricacy and bounty of the natural world, he would have run in circle screaming ‘Get them off me! Get them off me!’

Had he been from Lagash, Carl Sagan would have said, “Observe the splendor of the cosmos! It is billions and billions of  — AAAAAaaaargghh!”

Honestly, Campbell’s wry little joke shows very little faith in his science. Everyone I know is awed, rather than terrified, to discover there is more to Creation than he once thought, greater deeps and higher heights.