On Isaac Asimov's "Nightfall"

5 min read · 1 min skim

What follows is a summary of the novel with my own words, including the most outstanding (according to me) citations in the original. In the last section comes my own analysis and contemplations influenced by the brilliancy and ingenuity of the novel.

A strange planet

A planet, like our own, but a little peculiar - there is not a single moment of darkness, since the six suns the planet is orbiting are constantly providing it with light.

The people, so accustomed to the shining suns, are afraid to death of experiencing darkness, linking it to “claustrophobia” - being in the dark feels like you are placed in a closed room and the walls are crushing in on you, thus the fear of enclosed areas is the same as the fear of light.

The myth

The astronomers are oblivious of the existence of other celestial bodies and the magnitude of the universe, but there is this myth about the planet descending into the darkness and Stars appearing in the sky. Many civilizations have been wiped out because of the very reason, as the records suggest.

The inhabitants of the planet go insane as soon as the darkness falls on them and burn down everything around them including themselves, as at the time, it is the only way to generate light. And the next cycle begins.

…things called Stars appeared, which robbed men of their souls… so that they destroyed the civilization they themselves had built up”.

The observations

The scientists of the planet continue their astronomical observations and have just recently applied the Universal Theory of Gravitation to calculate the planet’s motion around the suns and… noticed a discrepancy between the theoretical predictions and the observed orbits.

To explain the discrepancy, they have made a crazy assumption that there is another body rotating around the planet (“What a screwy idea!”) and predict that at some point it might appear in the way of a sun. In other words, they predict an eclipse half a day long.

The eclipse would destroy their race making everyone go insane because of the Darkness and the Stars that will appear in the sky, which has wiped out their numerous civilizations in the past. The next such celestial event is about to do it again, in just a couple of hours.

The astronomers’ debate

One of the most prominent astronomers of the time is speculating about the universe and is making some really crazy assumptions:

Well, supposing there were other suns in the universe. I mean suns that are so far away that they are too dim to see. It sounds as if I have been reading some of that fantastic fiction.

Such a genius parallel with the development of astronomical knowledge of the earthlings! He continues,

There just isn’t any place in the universe you could put a million suns - unless they touch one another.

The debate continues slightly further giving fruits to even “crazier” thought experiments about a possible universe:

Supposing you had a universe in which there was a planet with only one sun… there’s the catch that life would be impossible on such a planet. It wouldn’t get enough heat and light, and if it rotated there would be total Darkness half of each day.

What a coincidence that this is exactly what happens here on Earth.

The Stars

As the eclipse is approaching its totality, the scientists are gradually going made.

By now, through the vivid depiction of the fear of darkness, the reader has unintentionally become a true inhabitant of the planet, and has persuaded himself that he is, too, afraid of the Darkness and the Stars.

Meanwhile, the last sun, Beta, is disappearing in the sky.

He turned his eyes toward the blood-curdling blackness of the window… Through it shone the Stars! Thirty thousand mighty suns shone down in a soul-searing splendor …”

A shiver runs through the whole body, imagining what it would feel like seeing the Stars for the very first time in life! What an intricate sensation that would be.

Comparing the eclipse with the fear of being placed in an enclosed area, which is the universe this time:

The bright walls of the universe were shattered and their awful black fragments were falling down to crush and squeeze and obliterate him.

And at last, the leading scientist that managed to keep a slight glimpse of sanity, realizing how incorrect their predictions of the universe were, murmurs:

Stars - all the Stars we didn’t know at all. We thought six stars in a universe is something the Stars didn’t notice is Darkness forever … and we didn’t know we couldn’t know…

And his mind disappears in the cloud of insanity together with the whole generation of minds, ending this cycle too.

The parallels

Asimov draws a number of parallels with our own development of astronomical knowledge and the strange planet. The ideas can be traced back to the ancient times thousands years from now, with the records connecting fear with eclipses.

Next, the Universal Theory of Gravitation and the erroneous prediction of the planet’s orbit, followed by the theory of a moon orbiting the planet and causing the disturbance.

Guess what? A similar story happened on our occasionally-dark planet when Newton came up with the exact same law of universal gravitation described in the novel. Centuries later, it was observed that Mercury’s orbit conflicted with this law, forcing scientists to revise their understanding of gravity. Einstein’s general relativity came to the rescue this time.

We also once believed that the universe consists of just our own galaxy. In 1920, in The Great Debate over the scale of the universe, Harlow Shapley argued that the universe was comprised only of our own galaxy. Similar to the scientists of Asimov’s planet, who believed there were just six suns in the whole universe.

Then Edwin Hubble went on to discover other galaxies besides our own in 1923, setting off a new astronomical era. As of now, the observations and calculations suggest billions or a couple of trillions trillions galaxies, with the universe being around 93 billion light years in diameter (a billion = 1 000 000 000 000).

The big question

“Nightfall” is a genuinely deep and subtly humorous story, making parallels with the astronomic development on Earth backed up by a couple of scientific and astronomical concepts to make the reader really believe in the story. It is simply genius.

As the people of the never-dark planet realise their insignificance in the universe with the discovery of Stars, could it be that we, the people of Earth, haven’t yet discovered our “Stars” and are yet to uncover the real universe?

Could the billions of galaxies, stars, planets and multiverses, comprise the six suns of what there actually is there?