"Nightfall" is a 1941 science fiction novelette by American writer Isaac Asimov about the coming of darkness to the people of a planet ordinarily illuminated by sunlight at all times. It was adapted into a novel with Robert Silverberg in 1990. The short story has been included in 48 anthologies, and has appeared in six collections of Asimov's stories. In 1968, the Science Fiction Writers of America voted "Nightfall" the best science fiction short story written prior to the 1965 establishment of the Nebula Awards, and included it in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One, 1929-1964.
Nightfall 1990 edition
|Author||Isaac Asimov |
|Media type||Print (hardback & paperback)|
Written from 17 March to 9 April 1941 and sold on 24 April, the short story was published in the September 1941 issue of Astounding Science Fiction under editor John W. Campbell. It was the 32nd story by Asimov, written while he was a graduate student in chemistry at Columbia University. Campbell asked Asimov to write the story after discussing with him a quotation from 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!
Campbell's opinion was to the contrary: "I think men would go mad". He and Asimov chose the title "Nightfall" together. At more than 13,000 words it was Asimov's longest story yet, and including a bonus from Campbell he received US$166 (1 1⁄4 cents per word), more than twice any previous payment for a story. His name appeared on the cover of Astounding for the first time, and the story made Asimov—who later said that before "Nightfall" neither he nor anyone else other than perhaps Campbell considered him more than a "third rater"—one of the industry's top writers. Asimov believed that the unusual plot of "Nightfall" distinguished it from others, but "The Last Question" was his own favorite story.
In 1988, Martin H. Greenberg suggested Asimov find someone who would take his 47-year-old short story and – keeping the story essentially as written – add a detailed beginning and a detailed ending to it. This resulted in the 1990 publication of the novel Nightfall by Isaac Asimov and Robert Silverberg. As Asimov relates in the Robert Silverberg chapter of his autobiography, "...Eventually, I received the extended Nightfall manuscript from Bob [Silverberg]... Bob did a wonderful job and I could almost believe I had written the whole thing myself. He remained absolutely faithful to the original story and I had very little to argue with."
The planet Lagash ("Kalgash" in the novel) is constantly illuminated by at least one of the six suns of its multiple star system. Lagash has areas of darkness (in caves, tunnels, etc.), but "night" does not exist.
A skeptical journalist visits a university observatory to interview a group of scientists who warn that civilization will soon end. One of the researchers explains that they have discovered evidence of numerous ancient civilizations on Lagash, all destroyed by fire, with each collapse occurring about 2,000 years apart. The religious writings of a doomsday cult claim that Lagash periodically passes through a dark cave where mysterious "stars" appear. The stars are said to rain down fire from the heavens and rob people of their souls, reducing them to beast-like savages.
The scientists use this apparent myth, along with recent discoveries in gravitational research, to develop a theory about the repeated collapse of society. A mathematical analysis of Lagash's orbit around its primary sun reveals irregularities caused by an undiscovered moon that is invisible in the light of the six suns. Calculations indicate that this moon will soon obscure one of Lagash's suns when it is alone in the sky, resulting in a total eclipse that occurs once every 2,000 years. Having evolved on a planet with no diurnal cycle, Lagashians possess an intense, instinctive fear of the dark and have never experienced a long period of total darkness, but the eclipse will last for "well over half a day".
The scientists theorize that earlier civilizations were destroyed by people who became insane during previous eclipses and—desperate for any light source—started large fires that destroyed cities. Oral accounts of the chaos from crazed survivors and small children were passed down through the ages and became the basis for the cult's sacred texts. Present-day civilization is doomed for the same reasons, but the researchers hope that detailed observations of the eclipse will help to break the cycle of societal collapse.
The scientists are unprepared, however, for the stars. Because of the perpetual daylight on Lagash, its inhabitants are unaware of the existence of stars apart from their own; astronomers believe that the entire universe is no more than a few light years in diameter and may hypothetically contain a small number of other suns. But Lagash is located in the center of a "giant cluster," and during the eclipse, the night sky—the first that people have ever seen—is filled with more than 30,000 newly visible stars.
Learning that the universe is far more vast—and Lagash far more insignificant—than they believed causes everyone, including the scientists, to become insane. Outside the observatory, in the direction of the city, the horizon begins glowing with the light of spreading fires as "the long night" returns to Lagash.
The system of Kalgash has six stars named Alpha, Beta, etc. in the original short story, whereas each has a proper name in the novel. In the novel, Onos is the primary sun of Kalgash and is located 10 light-minutes away, similar to the distance from Earth to our Sun. The other five suns are minor in comparison, but provide enough light to prevent the inhabitants of Kalgash from defining "night". The only other distance given is that Tano and Sitha form a binary star system about 11 times as far away as Onos.
From what can be drawn from the text, Onos, the star appearing brightest and largest in Kalgash's sky, is the star that Kalgash orbits. Onos, in turn, orbits around the binary system Trey and Patru, the other binary system Tano and Sitha, and the red dwarf star Dovim. In addition to these stars, the only other celestial object mentioned is Kalgash's moon, dubbed Kalgash Two by the scientists of Kalgash. Kalgash Two follows an eccentric orbit around Kalgash and every 2049 years it eclipses Dovim, during a period when from one part of Kalgash, Dovim is the only star that would be visible.
The characters of Nightfall travel to three separate locations on Kalgash. Most of the book is set in Saro City, which is situated near a large forest with trees, bushes, and graben (scavenger animals). As stated in the introduction, the weather in the book is analogous to the meteorologic experiences of the characters in the book, and the region of Saro City receives rains that last several days. The first major weather fluctuation mentioned in the book is the sandstorm that Siferra 89 avoided by hiding under a tarpaulin with her crew. The other weather event was the monsoon-like rains that occurred after Sheerin 501 returned from a consultation in Jonglor, which is described as a northern city. Siferra 89 travels to Beklimot, which is described as half a world away from Jonglor. Beklimot is located on the Sagikan Peninsula, near mountains. Beklimot is in a sandy, arid desert region.
In 1976, Analog Records, as their only release, presented a further dramatization of "Nightfall" on a 33 1⁄3 rpm vinyl record, produced by James Cutting and recorded at American Learning Center. After the story, it includes a dialog between Isaac Asimov and Ben Bova.
In 1988, Nightfall, a low-budget movie, was produced based upon the story. The movie was shot on location at the Arcosanti Project, using the resident community members as background actors. Another film version, Nightfall, was made in 2000.