Nightfall (Asimov short story and novel)
Nightfall 1990 edition
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"Nightfall" is a 1941 science fiction short story by Isaac Asimov about the coming of darkness to the people of a planet ordinarily illuminated at all times on all sides. It was adapted into a novel with Robert Silverberg in 1990. The short story has been included in 48 anthologies, and has appeared in six collections of Asimov's stories. In 1968, the Science Fiction Writers of America voted Nightfall the best science fiction short story written prior to the 1965 establishment of the Nebula Awards, and included it in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One, 1929-1964.
The short story was published in the September 1941 issue of Astounding Science Fiction magazine under editor John W. Campbell. It was the 32nd story by Asimov, written while he was working in his father's candy store and studying at Columbia University. 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's opinion to the contrary was: "I think men would go mad."
The fictional planet Lagash (Kalgash in the novel adaptation) is located in a stellar system containing six suns (Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta are the only ones named in the short story; Onos, Dovim, Trey, Patru, Tano, and Sitha in the novel), 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 Onos. Beenay takes his findings to his superior at the university, Aton, who formulated the Theory of Universal Gravitation (the in-story discussion of this makes light of an article once written about Einstein's Theory of Relativity, referencing the false notion that "only twelve men" could understand it). 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 ("Apostles of Flame" in the novel). 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. In the novel and X Minus One program, civil disorder breaks out; cities are destroyed in massive fires and civilization collapses, with the ashes of the fallen civilization and the competing groups trying to seize control.
The six star system of Kalgash is complicated. They are named Alpha, Beta, etc. in the original short story, and with original names in the novel (the first four of which are based on the Greek words for one, two, three, and four). In the novel, Onos is the primary sun of Kalgash and is located 10 light-minutes away, similar to the distance from Earth to our Sun. The other five suns are minor in comparison, but provide enough light to prevent the inhabitants of Kalgash from defining "night". The only other distance given is that Tano and Sitha (a binary star system) are about eleven times as far away as Onos is.
- Onos - Yellow dwarf - similar to the Sun
- Dovim - Red dwarf
- Trey and Patru - Class A or F Main Sequence Stars, described as "white" - binary star system
- Tano and Sitha - Class A, B or O Main Sequence Stars, described as "blue" - binary star system
From what can be drawn from the text, Onos, the star appearing brightest and largest in Kalgash's sky, is the star that Kalgash orbits. Onos in turn orbits around the binary system Trey and Patru, the other binary system Tano and Sitha, and the red dwarf star Dovim. In addition to these stars, the only other celestial object mentioned is Kalgash's moon, dubbed Kalgash Two by the scientists of Kalgash. Kalgash Two follows an eccentric orbit around Kalgash and eclipses Dovim, during a period when from one part of Kalgash, Dovim is the only star visible, every 2049 years.
The characters of Nightfall travel to three separate locations on Kalgash. Most of the book is set in Saro city, which is situated near a large forest with trees, bushes, and Graben (scavenger animals). As stated in the introduction, the weather in the book is analogous to the meteorologic experiences of the characters in the book, and the region of Saro city receives rains that last several days. The first major weather fluctuation mentioned in the book is the sand storm that Siferra 89 avoided by hiding under a tarpaulin with her crew. The other weather event was the monsoon-like rains that occurred after Sheerin 501 returned from a consultation in Jonglor, which is described as a northern city. Siferra 89 travels to Beklimot, which is described as half a world away from Jonglor. Beklimot is located on the Sagikan Peninsula, near mountains. Beklimot is in a sandy, arid desert region.
Allusions and references in other literature
Asimov collaborated with author Robert Silverberg on a novel-length revision of the original story in 1990. The novel significantly expanded upon and updated the original premise.
Dean McLaughlin's novel Dawn (serialized in the April–July 1981 issues of Analog magazine and republished in book form 25 years later as ISBN 978-1-59414-350-2) is in several ways an answer to Asimov's short story. It posited a similar society on a similar planet surrounded by similarly named stars. But, as its title suggests, Dawn is a more optimistic story, wherein society advanced rather than collapsed. McLaughlin paid homage to Asimov by naming the protagonist "Isak" and naming another character "Lagash" (the name of the planet in Nightfall).
George Alec Effinger wrote a spoof of Nightfall involving his Maureen Birnbaum character. The story, "Maureen Birnbaum After Dark", appeared in both Foundation's Friends and Maureen Birnbaum, Barbarian Swordsperson.
In 2013, the "XKCD" webcomic series "What-If" referenced this work in the post titled "Signs of Life". Specifically, the author, Randall Munroe, advises that to see signs of intelligent life on Earth, all one must do is "Wait for nightfall." With a hidden pop-up text of, "And then go crazy and burn down your civilization when you see the stars for the first time."
Adaptations in other media
In 1976, Analog Records, as their only release, presented a further dramatization of "Nightfall" on a 33 1/3 rpm vinyl record, produced by James Cutting and recorded at American Learning Center. After the story, it includes a dialog between Isaac Asimov and Ben Bova.
In 1988, a low-budget movie was produced based upon the story. The movie was shot on location at the Arcosanti Project, using the resident community members as background actors. Another film version was made in 2000.
- Audio review and discussion of Nightfall at The Science Fiction Book Review Podcast
- Emerson's essay from which the quote above comes: Nature. In "The Early Asimov: Book Two", p. 64, Asimov laments that he was not able to find the quotation.
- Nightfall - Read by Stephen Eley on the 100th episode of Escape Pod.