Literature / Nightfall

"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 which had been shown!"

"I think men would go mad instead."
John W. Campbell, dissenting from the above quotation

Nightfall is a short story and novel by Isaac Asimov. The original short story was first published in 1941, one of Asimov's earliest published works, and the first critically successful work of his career. The story had since been republished in many anthologies and was familiar to science fiction fans. The 1990 novel was an expansion of the short story, which only covered what became the second third of the novel. Robert Silverberg collaborated with him on the novel. The original story won a special Hugo award as the best science-fiction short story of all time.

Nightfall is about a planet with six suns that therefore never experiences true night. The plot follows an archaeologist, an astrophysicist, a psychologist, and a journalist in the months leading up to a scientifically predicted solar eclipse - the eponymous "nightfall" which plunges the planet into chaos. They also deal with a cult whose holy book predicts the eclipse as well, and who have been planning for it for upward of two thousand years.

Unless otherwise noted, all references here are to the novel. No relation to the early-'80s CBC radio horror series.

Nightfall provides examples of:

  • Adam and Eve Plot: A would-be rapist's justification for his actions.
  • Alien Sky: To us, the world of the story. To the characters in the story, the night sky, and especially the stars.
  • All Myths Are True: The holy book of the cult is actually a remarkably accurate historical accounting.
  • Amusement Park of Doom: Since the thing everyone's most afraid of is darkness, someone has the great idea of making a funfair horror ride that goes for fifteen minutes with no light whatsoever. Strong-willed people who take it are temporarily reduced to quivering wrecks. Weak-minded ones go permanently insane. The ride does not last long.
  • Ancient Conspiracy: 2049 years is a long time to wait to try to take over the world.
  • And Man Grew Proud: The holy book, again.
  • Anyone Can Die: Not all the main characters make it out alive.
  • Apocalypse Anarchy: They basically burn down their entire civilization in the freak-out; then the survivors start over from scratch. By the time of the next eclipse, the only record of the previous one is in mythology.
  • Apocalypse How: Planetary Societal Collapse. Danger of Planetary Species Extinction.
  • The Ark: A bunker in an old particle accelerator complex.
  • Asimov's Three Kinds of Science Fiction: Social.
  • Attempted Rape: After the eclipse. Proves fatal for the would-be attacker.
  • Bad Moon Rising: The central third of the plot.
  • Binary Suns: Kalgash has two pairs of binary suns!
  • Call a Rabbit a "Smeerp": "Thargola's Sword" for Occam's Razor. A few other things. Mostly averted in favor of Translation Convention, as seen below.
  • Endless Daytime: Well, almost endless...
  • First Time in the Sun: Inverted by it being the first time under the night sky, and subverted in that this is anything but a Crowning Moment of Awesome for those who see it.
  • Fantastic Naming Convention: The inhabitants of the planet Lagash have a name followed by a number, e.g. Sheerin 501, Beenay 25, etc.
  • Go Mad from the Revelation: The plot involves the main characters frantically trying to prevent their civilization from suffering this when they finally experience darkness for the first time. While the darkness is bad enough, what no-one is prepared for is the billions and billions of stars that suddenly appear in the night sky. This leads to the far more devastating revelation that their solar system, which they had originally believed to be the extent of the entire universe, is merely a tiny part of it.
  • Insignificant Little Blue Planet: When one character sees the Stars, he realizes that the universe must not merely be made of the six suns, Kalgash and Kalgash 2.
  • Irony: Everyone is trying to prevent their society from going completely mad once they experience the darkness caused by the eclipse. Unfortunately, no-one was prepared for the billions of stars that appeared in the night sky, and the revelation that their society, which they had previously believed to be the entire universe, was only a tiny part of a much greater whole. It's not just the darkness that drives everyone mad, but the billions of lights that can be seen in the darkness.
  • It Will Never Catch On: At one point, discussing the aversion to darkness universal among the populace, an example of a world with a single sun, exposed to an average of 12 hours of darkness per day is posited. It's ridiculed as a useless thought experiment, because darkness is considered so inimical to life that such a world would be barren and dead.
  • Just Before the End
  • Madness Mantra: Happens at the end of the short story, when the six suns set but the stars in the night sky reveal themselves, leading the character of Aton to start crying and saying "Stars — all the stars — we didn't know at all. We didn't know anything. We thought six stars in a universe is something the Stars didn't notice is Darkness forever and ever and ever and the walls are breaking in and we didn't know we couldn't know anything—"
  • Mohs Scale of Science Fiction Hardness: Pretty much rock-solid. Posits no new technology or science, the only thing that makes this science fiction at all is the setting. However, it's nearly impossible for a stellar system with the described properties to exist — either the orbits would be unstable, or the suns would be too far apart for the permanent day (which must be a bright day, otherwise the stars would be daytime visible, since the setting is in the middle of a globular cluster).
  • Negative Space Wedgie: One of the theories the physicists propose to explain a perturbation in the planet's orbit.
  • Numbered Homeworld: "Kalgash 2", the previously unknown moon.
  • Primal Fear: An entire planet that has never known darkness. People of all ages sleep with nightlights. What would happen if this world encountered true darkness en masse without sufficient preparation?
  • Torches and Pitchforks: Emphasis on the torches, in a collective attempt to stave off darkness.
  • Translation Convention: From the foreword:
    ...We could have told you that our character paused to strap on his quonglishes before setting out on a walk of seven vorks along the main gleebish of his native znoob, and everything would have seemed ever so much more thoroughly alien. But it also would have been ever so much more difficult to make sense out of what we were saying, and that did not seem useful.