Monday, October 20, 2008

Nightfall

Nightfall
Isaac Asimov and Robert Silverberg, © 1990
Bantam Books, New York
339 pages.

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!

A little over a year ago I read my second work of fiction by Isaac Asimov, one that made me a fan and led to the Asimov-binge I enjoyed so thoroughly this summer. Nightfall and Other Stories captivated me. The title story is set in a world occupied by humans, but who have no connection with Earth. A bit like the LOTR series, I suppose -- the humans there live in a completely different but understandable world of their own. The same is true of the humans who live on the planet of Lagesh, whose civilization has never known night -- or has it?

The planet is illuminated constantly by five suns. I'm not quite sure how that works in astronomical terms, but given Asimov's knowledge of astronomy I wouldn't be surprised if he had something in mind. Because of this constant illumination, the humans here have no knowledge of night -- but that will change. The story, apparantly quite well-reviewed, was adapted into a novel in 1990 -- and that is what I have just read.

Although the people of this world have no active memory of ever seeing night, legends of the past state that every 2049 years the Gods examine the people of Lagesh (called Kalgesh in the novel) to see if they are moral or not. When They realize that the people are still sinful, they in their divine fury hide the light of the suns and send the Stars to rain fire down the people to purge them of their wicked ways. These legends are religious in nature, and a powerful group called the Apostles of Flame are more active than ever in the days that begin this novel.

While it is easy to dismiss their rantings about the end of days as nothing more than religious lunacy, those rationalists who the Apostles decry as godless are realizing that something is...off.
  • Sheerin 501, a psychologist who is becoming increasingly aware of the negative psychological effects of even a little darkness on the Kalgeshian psyche.
  • Siferra 89, an archaologist examining the ruins of an ancient city who discovers to her confusion the existence of six other ruined cities built below it -- each displaying evidence of having been destroyed by fire, with the other cities being built above them before subsequently being burned themselves -- with 2049 years existing between each city's rise and fall, indicating the city was periodically burned to the ground, then rebuilt.
  • Beenay 25, a mathmetician who realizes that there's something lacking in his hero and mentor's Theory of Universal Gravitation.

As the novel progresses, Beenay and his mentor realize that Kalgesh has a natural satellite, one that they have never seen before because the light reflected from its surface is washed out by the light from Kalgesh's various suns. This satellite is projected to eclipse one of their suns on a day when that sun is the only one in the sky. The result will be hours of darkness. This eclipse, like those of our Sun, can be predicted using gravitational theory -- and they realize that the eclipse has occured before -- and occurs every 2049 years. The onset of Darkness -- which the Kalgeshians fear instinctively -- would be fought by attempts to make fires whenever they could, they reason, and uncontrolled fires breaking out planet-wide could destroy their civilizations. While they have a few lights in internal rooms, the net effect will be hemisphere-wide darkness.

This, coupled with Siferra's archaeologist data, seems to validate the claims made by the Apostles of Flame, who forcast doom and destruction. This is not easy to accept by the rationalists, but eventually they do. They attempt to warn the population, but their claims are discounted by a cynical journalist named Theremon -- who denounces the scientists as having either lost their heads or become worry-warts. (This could concievably be a gentle poke by Asimov at those who mock global warming proponents, since Asimov was attempting to raise awareness about global warming in the 1980s.) As a result, society is largely unprepared on the day when the only sun in the sky begins to be eclipsed by a dark body -- Kalgesh's moon.

As the sun's light gives way to darkness and the stars appear in all their glory, Asimov ended the short story version of this. I believe the last line was something along the lines of "My god, look at the Stars!". This is interesting, because as we find out, it's not the darkness that strives men mad -- it's the overwhelming and terrifying beauty of the stars, whose existence could never be imagined. Nightfall does not conclude with the arrival of the Stars, though: it continues with "Daybreak", where we see the consequences. Only two groups we know of have prepared in any way for the Darkness: the Apostles of Flame, who intend to impose a theocracy from the ashes of their civilization -- and the scientists, who have prepared a small sanctuary with the knowledge of civilization. We are thus prepared for a battle between the forces of irrationality and rationality -- intriuged?

How the story ends I won't say. I will say, though, that the story remains interesting throughout and I recommend it to those who enjoy a good read. The story provokes many interesting questions, at least for me. For instance, it's highly unlikely that every single civilization was graced with clear skies with the advent of the eclipse. If it was the stars rather than the darkness that drove people made, cloud cover would mitigate the effects greatly. Those civilizations that remained intact could serve as the foundation for a new political order. That would be an interesting sequel -- but Asimov is no longer with us. I suppose Silverberg could write it, but I doubt that would happen.

2 comments:

  1. Great story! I went on an Asimov binge last summer, too, after I read Prelude to Foundation. I ripped and roared to the entire Foundation series, and read Nightfall, Nemesis and Pebble in the Sky as well.

    Robots next!

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  2. I'm hoping to read the Empire series soon, but my access to all of the books is rather limited. Nemesis will probably be next for me. :-)

    (Thanks for commenting! How did you find me?)

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