In honor of the special tribute to Isaac Asimov on the podcast this week I thought I’d share some thoughts on one of his superlative short stories (almost always ranked as one of the top sci-fi short stories all time), “Nightfall”. Although written when he was only 21, it captures two of the key elements that would pervade most of his writing from that point on. It is a sci-fi story based on a single out-of-the-box idea supported by common elements, and it incorporates the rationalist belief that knowledge is far more effective at solving problems than is ignorance.
As the Good Doctor writes in Nightfall and Other Stories, “Nightfall” grew out of the first part of an Emerson quote that the dean of modern science fiction, John W. Campbell Jr., shared with him. Rather than echoing Emerson’s sentiment, however, Asimov chose took a different tack and envisioned the infrequent appearance of stars as a frightful event rather than one of wonder. Starting with an impossibly complex solar system configuration (his “out-of-the-box” central idea), the story looks at a civilization that only sees the stars once in seventy generations. He then builds a society that, in the absence of the celestial mechanics that result in stars appearing only once every 2,000 years, would be one that any of us would find familiar. The consequences of that one difference, however, are significant.
Asimov frequently railed against those who saw science as a problem but not a source of solutions, and who felt that baseless belief was as good as solid science (for example, here and here). He used the consequences of his unique solar system in “Nightfall” to make this argument, with a cult mysticizing the arrival of the stars, preaching blind faith to them and their power, and a group of scientists striving to understand them and record data to prevent future civilizations from falling. The scientists are few in number and are targeted by the cult when the nightfall they’ve predicted comes to pass. The cult promises people immediate salvation if they storm the scientists and prevent them from collecting and recording their data. In the end the unthinking, unreasoning masses prevail, and “the long night [came] again”, dooming the world to another cycle of rise and fall.
These features make “Nightfall” very compelling reading. I’ve tried not to get too deeply into the plot because any interpretation on my part would fall far short of the story itself–and thereby detract from the pleasure of reading it. The story is a powerful example of how good science fiction can create completely plausible and self-consistent worlds without requiring a complete suspension of disbelief.