Nightfall by Isaac Asimov has garnered much critical acclaim and has been considered a classic work of fiction in this genre. The story has proved instrumental in raising Asimov’s status as a science fiction writer of repute.
‘Nightfall’ tells the story of planet Lagash which remains in perpetual sunlight and is about to experience its first night in 2,049 years. The story begins a few hours before pitch darkness engulfs the entire planet. The story inter-twines scientific facts with myth and fantasy and presents the terrifying prospect of the world coming to an end because of darkness. The time frame of the story is four hours and has a single setting, which is the Observatory at Saro University. Lagash is a distant civilisation which has six suns across its sky which constantly spreads light to the planet. The world as Lagash knows will come to an end in four hours. Five suns have already set and the sixth Beta is about to set in four hours. This event will occur not because of any catastrophic event, but because the people will go mad and self- destruct themselves. There is a scientific explanation, and also a mythological explanation from the Cultists’ Book of Revelation offered in the narrative for this madness.
The scientific explanation – Aton and the group of scientists in the Observatory have, after painstaking research found that nine previous civilizations of Lagash were destroyed by fire at the height of their culture and no one could tell why. This destruction begins with an eclipse, “The eclipse that results, with the moon seven times the apparent diameter of Beta, covers all of Lagash and lasts well over half a day, so that no spot on the planet escapes the effects” Lagash will find itself in centre of a giant cluster of thirty thousand mighty stars despite which there will be complete darkness. The human brain when faced with something inconceivable will go mad, and cities will burn because people will light fires to dispel the darkness. Sheerin, the psychologist raises fundamental questions and issues related to conception of truth and the brain’s capacity to understand it. When Sheerin says: “A fraction of the reality upsets you, and when the real thing comes, your brain is going to be presented with the phenomenon outside its limits of comprehension. You will go mad, completely and permanently! There is no question of it!”, the statement holds a general amount of philosophical truth and the author seems to understand the way human society works and also seems to understand the limits of the brain.
The Cultists’ explanation – This is based on the myth of “Stars” in the Book of Revelation. It states that in every 2,050 years Lagash enters a huge cave, then mysterious stars appear which rob the people of their souls and leave them as brutes and a heavenly flame from the Stars will destroy Lagash.
In the city of Saro itself which is representative of all other cities on the planet Lagash, there are three groups- the ordinary citizens, scientists and cultists – all trying to come to terms with this phenomena. The scientists and cultists are few in number. The voice of the citizens who are in a majority is found in Theremon, the journalist. He, like the rest of the citizens thinks that the scientists are crack-pots with bizarre theories; he does not believe in the Book of Revelation either and dismisses it as mumbo-jumbo. He is like the proverbial ostrich refusing to accept the truth facing him. After all five of the six suns have set! The scientists in anticipation of the impending doom have put three hundred people (3/4th of which are women and children) with all the data collected in a hideout so that the next cycle will “know” and the three hundred saved can repopulate the planet and start a new cycle.
The Cultists are however waiting with elation for the end of the world. Of the three groups only they are not interested in averting this occurrence. They believe that the ‘Stars’, when they rob them of their souls, will provide them with immortality. The fifth chapter of the Book of Revelation, which Latimer recites as the end nears, gives the reader an idea of the terrifying things about to happen. The title of the Book, language and style of the fifth chapter also makes the reader connect it to the Book of Revelation in the Bible, and the Apocalypse.
“And it came to pass that in those days the sun, Beta, held lone vigil…it alone, shrunken and cold, shone down upon Lagash… And men did assemble in the public squares and in the highways, there to debate and to marvel at the sight, for a strange depression had seized them. Their minds were troubled and their speech confused, for the souls of men awaited the coming of the Stars…It came to pass that the Darkness of the Cave fell upon Lagash, and there was no light on all the surface of Lagash. Men were even as blinded, nor could one man see his neighbour, though he felt his breath upon his face…And in this blackness there appeared the Stars, in countless numbers, and to the strains of music of such beauty that the very leaves of the trees cried out in wonder. And in that moment the souls of men departed from them, and their abandoned bodies became even as beasts… From the Stars there then reached down the Heavenly Flame, and where it touched, the cities of Lagash flamed to utter destruction, so that of man and of the works of man nought remained.”
The Book of Revelation is in the language of the second cycle of civilisation and how the Book survived despite seven more cycles being destroyed is in itself a mystery and lends credence to the cultists’ belief in the miraculous power of God. The interesting part of the narrative is that science is not being seen in opposition to the predictions in the Book of Revelation. We find the scientists agreeing with them. Aton when he reaches a dead end in the research approaches Sor, the head of the Cultists for the data only Sor could give. Aton, a little later in the story tells Latimer that he had promised Sor that his intention was to prove the “essential truth of the creed of the cult”. He claims to have found scientific backing to the creed’s beliefs.
Despite the fact that the scientists are in agreement with the cultists, Latimer has come to destroy the Observatory, because the Cultists believe that Aton has removed the spiritual significance of the prediction and made ‘Darkness’ and ‘Stars’ a natural phenomenon. This is the bone of contention between them. In this accusation, Latimer is only partially correct. ‘Darkness’ according to the scientists is created due to an eclipse and the duration of this eclipse would be of half a day, whereas the Cultists believe that the darkness is caused when Lagash will enter a huge cave of darkness, because this is preordained in the Book of Revelation and is of divine dispensation.
‘Stars’ in the Lagash sky are not the stars we conceive them to be; for the Cultists the stars are mysterious and do not provide any light, but appear in the sky with the sole purpose of robbing people off their souls and turning them into beasts. The divine flame from the Stars will burn down the civilization. The scientists have no explanation for the stars and are inclined to accept their mystery. “Imagine Darkness – everywhere. No light, as far as you can see. The houses, the trees, the fields, the earth, the sky – black! And Stars thrown in, for all I know – whatever they are. Can you conceive it?” Shireen’s words indicate a fear of the unknown, unknown because they do not know what these stars are. The two younger scientists Yimot and Faro conduct an experiment to simulate the darkness and its appearance before it could happen in reality. They simulate night and create complete darkness and make holes in the roof to give the effect of the stars, but this experiment fails. Yimot reports to the other scientists, “Well, nothing. That was the whacky part of it. Nothing happened. It was just a roof with holes in it and that’s just what it looked like.” The narrative ends with the arrival of Stars as predicted in the Book of Revelation: “the awful splendour of the indifferent Stars leaped nearer to them. The long night had come again.”