Wednesday, June 4, 2014


This is a story about a story. It is a special story; very special to me. It was written by my favorite author, the “good doctor,” Isaac Asimov. It is rather special to others too. Written in 1941, it was adapted into a novel by Asimov in collaboration with Robert Silverberg in 1990. The short story has been included in 48 anthologies, and has appeared in six collections of Asimov's tales. 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.

Asimov is one of my three “all time favorite” authors along with Arthur C. Clarke and Robert A. Heinlein. [Note to readers: I’m not the only one that lumps these three together. They are often considered the “big three” by science fiction authors, fans, and biographers and historians of sci-fi.] These three, and particularly Asimov, came to prominence under the editorship of John W. Campbell, Jr. in his Astounding Science Fiction magazine. All three were real scientists and engineers (like many science fiction authors), and described significant and practical inventions in their work. (While Asimov is famous for his analysis of robots, Clarke invented geosynchronous satellites, and Heinlein created "waldoes.")

Asimov completed his MA in chemistry in 1941 and earned a PhD in biochemistry in 1948. After completing his doctorate, Asimov joined the faculty of the Boston University School of Medicine, with which he remained associated thereafter. From 1958, this was in a non-teaching capacity, as he turned to writing full-time. Being tenured, he retained the title of associate professor, and in 1979, the university honored his writing by promoting him to full professor of biochemistry.

My early science education included much from his nonfiction. The Measure of the Universe, The Search For The Elements, The Noble Gases, The Neutrino: Ghost Particle of the Atom, Understanding Physics, Vol. 1-3, Light, Asimov on Numbers, Realm of Algebra, … and many more … all still in my library. He even wrote seven books on the Bible and a detailed study of Shakespeare, also in my collection. There are 506 books accredited to him, and I think they may have missed a few in the count. Certainly a prolific author. All that and great science fiction too.

Nightfall came about when 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.”

In Asimov’s tale, there is a planet called Lagash which 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.

At the point of the story, there is only one “sun” in the sky, since the other five are on the opposite side of the planet. Unknown to most of the population, a solar eclipse is about to occur which will block out this single source of light. (As the planet rotates, the entire surface will be in the dark.) This is a rare occurrence that only occurs once every 2049 years. Because it is never night, the people have not experienced total darkness. In fact, there are some experiences that suggest total darkness will cause madness.

There is a religious cult that speaks of “stars,” the unknown objects that are never seen in the always lit sky. They expect an apocalypse accompanied by the stars taking away the “believers.” The astronomers have worked out the mechanics and are predicting the eclipse. The archeologists have found evidence of several prior civilizations that all end in fire and ash every 2000 years. All these facts are gathered by a reporter as he interviews the different protagonists during the last day before nightfall.

One of the scientists explains the expectation that, in the darkness, men will go mad and burn everything seeking light. They have several hundred colleagues hidden in a special place intended to survive the catastrophe. Meanwhile the remaining astronomers intend to create a photographic record to “restart” civilization after the nightfall. The cult leader shows up to smash the cameras as “blasphony,” and must be subdued. As the eclipse starts to darken the ski, of course, the “angry villagers,” egged on by members of the religious cult and approaching darkness, are at the observatories gates tearing down the door.

Then it happens. The total eclipse. The stars come out. With the arrival of the night and a crimson glow that was "not the glow of a sun,” (for the city has been set fire) with the implication that societal collapse has occurred once again.

Just what science fiction does best. It answers the question “What if?” Next I’ll tell you about Arthur C. Clarke’s The Star. Oh, I see we’re out of time. Well, next time then.

Burn down the mission
Burn it down to stay alive

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