Nightfall is a story that is very much the essence of science fiction. What would happen if something was different? Take away a part of our world that we take for granted and see how things would develop. Then give it back.
The planet Lagash has six suns. Its inhabitants have never experienced the darkness of night. What would total darkness feel like if you had never experienced it? How would you combat it if it never occurred to you that it was a problem?
Isaac Asimov was one of the first writers I was introduced to in the science fiction genre. Like Arthur C. Clarke he was a giant whose stories embraced science. Nightfall is thick with it. The law of universal gravitation and heliocentric orbit are part of the plot. More importantly, the process through which these theories were developed is part of the plot. For it is not facts that make up science, rather, it is the scientific method that investigates observations and develops them into facts - and then develops those facts into better facts.
The story’s protagonists - its heroes - are archaeologists, astronomers, and psychologists. The events leading up to Nightfall entail the uncovering of a previously unknown danger. Archaeologists on Lagash discover a periodic destruction of civilization on the planet. Astronomers find anomalies in the orbits of the suns that coincide with that destruction. A psychologist learns something about the human mind.
All of this leads to a startling conclusion of three parts.
The villains are those who seek to belittle inquiry. A media outlet ignorantly wages a public campaign against the scientists. A religious cult has reached the same conclusion as the scientists but ascribes it to divine intervention, not natural laws. Asimov is clever in his refutation of religious dogma. His scientists actually went to the cult for help when they could not square their data. Accounts from sacred books gave them the knowledge they needed to accurately predict the coming events. While they confirm the dire predictions of the religion they actually refute the mysticism behind it. It is vintage Asimov.
- Every 2,000 years the suns align such that the sky goes dark.
- People are unaccustomed to the dark, and react with extreme fear when faced with prolonged exposure.
- People will do whatever they can to expunge the darkness, including lighting fire to everything in sight.
This is a review of the short story version of Nightfall, a story I count as one of the better short stories I’ve ever heard.