Nightfall: What Asimov had to say about our relation with the stars.

The following essay is a personal dive into the history and philosophy of my favourite, and possibly one of the greatest Sci-Fi short stories of all time, Nightfall (1941) by Isaac Asimov. I have no interest in going too deeply into the contents of this fascinating novella, and instead will try to talk about how the novel discusses human nature (the aliens are basically human surrogates). So don’t worry; no spoilers. DO go and read the story.

Stargazing

The image of a person staring up at the sky, in wonder, is often the quintessential projection of humanity’s endless curiosity about our universe. And for good reason. Our association with the sky above us has been one of the defining characteristics of human development. Ancient Samoans used the stars to guide them to distant islands with no other tools to help, while the Sumerians built massive observatories to watch and document their motion. Hopefully, most of us have atleast passing interest in the heavens.

Yet, just as importantly, most humans are unaffected by them. While some have a passive interest, most can spend their entire lives without paying the stars much attention. So how could something as grand and vast as the rest of the universe be simultaneously so blasé as to provoke almost no response? And what would happen if stars weren’t so commonplace? If we didn’t see them every night as we went to bed?

This is where Asimov comes in. Isaac Asimov, who was a young Chemistry graduate and budding science fiction author, was approached by Astounding Science Fiction editor John Campbell with an assignment. Campbell had come across the following quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson:

“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!”

He was unimpressed. Rather than the marvel and awe that Emerson believed humans would feel if they saw stars for the first time in a thousand years, Campbell believed that the primary human response would be fear. In his words, “I think men would go mad”. And so, Campbell set Asimov, his protege, off on his longest writing assignment yet. Asimov was to lucidly articulate the fear that Campbell had described. Yet, even Campbell couldn’t foresee how Asimov would turn this pioneering idea into a masterpiece that shot him into the national limelight.

Lagash, the planet that the events of the story take place in, is a by-the-book representation of a “mini-Earth”, a science fiction world that displays a slightly distorted mirror image of our society on Earth. The world has been built almost analogous to our own, except for the perpetual sunlight that bathes the surface. Its six suns, Alpha, Beta… etc., occupy the sky in various positions, with at least one sun in the sky at all times. The Lagashians have, thus, a pathological fear of “Night”. Asimov elaborates in the story that there are dark places on the planet; but darkness doesn’t correspond to Night. Night is described as all-consuming and, in the minds of the unaware Lagashians, eternal.

Religion is another major plot-point in Nightfall. As it is on our world, religion on Lagash is a vessel to pass down generational information. And the Lagashian religion has foreseen the coming of night. Yet, for all the truth that this religion holds, its stubbornness is its downfall. For rather than amending its understanding by using the data that the protagonists have uncovered; namely the explanation for why the night comes in the first place, the religion continues to provide a fatalistic outlook on the future. This view of religion was in many ways a reflection of Asimov’s own beliefs as a scientist and a rationalist in the 1940’s, but could also possibly have as much importance today.

But religion has a bigger part to play. Earlier I described how humans used the stars to their advantage. Yet the greatest effect that stars have played on us is as a source of mystery, and as a reminder that the universe is much bigger than ourselves. We on Earth too have used religion to fill in the blanks of our cognition. On Lagash, the inhabitants had no such reminder for most of their existence, till it was suddenly and without consent thrust down upon them. Under such overwhelming odds, we and our Lagashian counterparts are quick to turn to an answer that can comfort us and them, even if that answer is devoid of evidence.

In this way, Nightfall was a ground-breaking feat of literature that tried to answer the question of what the stars mean to us. Now, this is not to say that either Campbell, Asimov or Emerson were right. There may be no way to know, and it is not my place to make such an assertion. Humans have always been around the stars, and how we think the Lagashians would react is simply a reflection of our own beliefs and expectations.

What I will say though, is to ask yourself that question. What do the stars mean to you? And if you hadn’t seen the stars for the thousand years till today, what would you do? As an avid star-gazer, this is the greatest takeaway I had from this book. Questions that will never be completely answered.

 

-Dhruv Warrior

 

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