Nightfall

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. It was first published in an 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 is located in a stellar system containing six suns 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. As the story starts, a group of scientists make a series of related discoveries: a psychologist, researches the effects of prolonged exposure to darkness; an archaeologist finds evidence of multiple cyclical collapses of civilization which have occurred regularly about every 2000 years, and an astronomer discovers irregularities in the orbit of Lagash around its primary sun Onos. It is eventually determined that the only possible cause of the deviation is an astronomical body that orbits Lagash.

Concurrently, a religious movement called the Cult has arisen. They believe the world would be destroyed in a darkness with the appearance of stars that unleash a torrent of fire. The astronomer 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, they are all 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.

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