“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?”
- Ralph Emerson
“They’d go mad.”
- John Campbell
This essay-story is a combination of critique and fanfic, about Isaac Asimov’s “Nightfall”. I imagine a world almost like his, but which breaks free from its deadly cycle.
“Nightfall” is set on Lagash, an Earthlike world populated by humanoid beings; but with a crucial difference; the world has multiple suns and so experiences night only once a millennium. This happens when their sun Beta wanders off alone to half of the sky – a Beta/Lagash/Suns alignment – and Beta is then eclipsed by another body, previously unseen. The explanation offered in Asimov’s story is that the eclipsing moon is made of blue slate, which blends into Lagash’s sky.
But if the eclipsor (which I hereby dub Nemesis) eclipses an entire hemisphere of Lagash for an entire planetary rotation, then either:
1) Nemesis is the primary and Lagash is a moon
2) Beta is smaller than Nemesis, which orbits it.
Both options have problems. If Lagash is a moon of Nemesis, then wouldn’t it be tidally locked? And if so, then the night would cover only one hemisphere. And if Lagash is not tidally locked to its primary, then there would be tides.
And if Beta’s a white dwarf orbited by a gas giant, then it would not form a disk in the sky of Lagash – which it did in Asimov’s story, which he mentioned to dramatic effect.
In either case, surely there would have been previous eclipses.
Also, the Night would last one twelve-hour stretch only on parts of Lagash. For most of the planet, those twelve hours of Night would come in two parts, with twelve hours of daylight in between.
For now I’ll go with the Nemesis-as-primary theory. All these mechanics are excuses for the story’s central conceit; a world that has night only once in a thousand years; a night whose sky is full of stars. Emerson said that in such a world men would marvel and worship the starry night sky; Campbell told Asimov that they’d go mad; and he paid Asimov to write a story showing it.
For on Asimov’s Lagash, the humanoids have never experienced night darkness, and are pathologically afraid of it. Desperate for light, they set things on fire, and the cities burn down.
What is worse, their world exists inside an enormous star-cluster, with millions of Stars visible at Night. This spectacle overawes the disoriented Lagashians. After the Night most of the survivors are mind-broken, unable to attend to their needs. Therefore on Lagash there is a thousand-year cycle of city-building punctuated by the millennial Night and civilizational collapse.
Asimov presented Campbell’s cynical apocalypse well enough for this to be his first published story. It annoyed him that so many fans admired him so much for that, his first and worst work.
I concur! Astronomical difficulties aside, the psychology and history he presents is absurd. Taken at face value, Lagash’s eclipse-driven cycle cannot endure. Lagash is fated to break loose.
For by Asimov’s account, each Night, plus aftermath, exerts intense selective pressure. Any Night-adaptation, however slight, will increase in the gene-pool each Night, and will soon dominate. I guess that within a dozen Nights (12000 years) most Lagashians will have Night-vision, Dark-tolerance and Star-tolerance.
Eventually they will reach a tipping point, and their civilization will survive the Night. That will be Daybreak. How will it go?
I imagine a world that had predicted the coming eclipse, centuries earlier. During those centuries, they made preparations, such as inventing electric lighting. Also there were cultural adaptations, such as the Miner’s Guild. These underground workers were pioneers in lighting and dark-adaptation; they formed a secular allegiance with the religio-scientific Reformed Star-Cult, heretical enemies of the traditionalist doomsday Orthodox Star-Cult.
By Night time, most of Lagash had distributed some forms of lighting to the general populace; plus had also trained specialized Night-time firefighters and police. There were holdbacks; the Orthodox Star-Cult Magisterium issued an Anti-Electric Fatwa; so a whole continent was plunged into Darkness when the Night came.
This time the people thought themselves prepared. Hand-held electric Lights, firemen, mass darkness training, even suborbital robot photos of the Stars. Come the Night, the people huddle indoors, all Lights on. The TVs issue warnings; don’t look at the Stars… but some just have to look. One in ten bundles up and goes out to see the Stars.
Hints of Darkness lurked in the corners of the room, despite the Lights. The wall TV flickered images from all around Lagash; the talking heads chattered of totality and orbital mechanics.
On screen, a talking head was saying, “Mercedes, think of it! Once in a thousand years, an eclipse! Once in a thousand years, a Night! With Dark, Cold and Stars! We are witnessing history here!”
The other talking head smiled and said, “Call me 312! Or maybe the end of history, Decatur!”
“Call me 761! So how is the eclipse going?”
She smiled and said, “The eclipse is going right on schedule, just as the astronomers predicted! Beta is alone in the sky-”
Decatur 761 said, “Here in Theremin City all other five suns are still in the sky!”
Mercedes 312 said, “Here in Saro, Beta is halfway to totality! You can see it on your screen here.”
“Very impressive. How are the people reacting?”
Mercedes 312 said, “With awe! But also fear. Of the Dark. And the Cold.”
“And of course the Stars.”
“And the Stars. Of course. But every home is lit. Electric Lights for everyone! And the people are staying indoors.”
“Except essential personnel?”
“Yes, police, firefighters.”
The two talking heads chuckled a bit at 761’s little joke. But 312 said, “You mean… Reformed Star-Cultists? Yes.” By which she meant the astronomers. “And the Miner’s Guild, of course. But they’re trained for darkness.”
“As are we all, 312. So no civil disorders?”
“Any signs of panic? Symptoms of claustrophobia?”
Mercedes 312 inhaled sharply, let it out slowly. “It’s getting… Dark out there… yes. But every room indoors is well lit.”
“It pays to be prepared, 312.”
“You bet, 761. We here in Saro City have been preparing for this Night for centuries.”
Decatur 761 said, “As we here in Theremin. Luck of the draw, don’t you think?”
“What do you mean?”
“Once every thousand years, Night fell, and civilization wasn’t ready, so it burned. This has happened, what, ten times?”
“But sooner or later civilization was bound to figure it out in time. That’s us. We know Night is coming, and we know how to cope with it.”
Mercedes 312 recited from the Reformed Star-Cult Credo, “‘For the Cold, dress warm. For the Dark, take a lamp. For the Stars, stay indoors.’ ”
Decatur 761 said, “That’s the credo for the laity. For the clergy, it ends, ‘For the Stars, bring a scope’.”
The talking heads chattered on, but the sole occupant of the room paid little attention to them. Shon 137 was at the window, standing sideways to it, looking sideways out into the Twilight.
On screen the local anchorwoman said, “Beta is three-quarters to totality! The sky is turning from red to black!”
The head anchorman said, “A black sky? How strange!”
“And look! You see? There on the screen?”
“Are those… Stars?”
The screen showed a sprinkling of Stars; Shon’s own window showed more. Shon knew that there will be more. Millions more.
Lagash and its six suns orbited each other within a globular cluster. The view was titanic – or it would be if ever Lagash had a moment of true Night. But this only happened once in a thousand years, when all suns but Beta lined up – just in time and place to be eclipsed by Lagash’s Moon.
Thus causing the millennial planetary Night.
Thus causing mass Darkness-panic. The people of many-sunned Lagash never experienced Night-blindness, normally. Thus claustrophobia, panic, Light-need; leading to arson, the burning of the cities, and yet another collapse of civilization.
Shon knew that too; so had everyone in Lagash, due to the intensive educational mission of the Miners and the Reformed Star-Cult. The mining guild and the heretical religion taught physics, Astronomy, and orbital mechanics, but also Light-making. The discovery of electric Lighting was a Miner triumph; as was the Reformed Star-Cult imposition of Lighting on all indoor structures, in preparation for the Night.
Shon knew all of these historical facts, they had been taught to him in school. He also knew that these teachings had long been violently opposed by the Orthodox Star-Cult.
On screen, Decatur 761 reported that the Orthodox Star-Cult Magisterium had reaffirmed their Anti-Electric Fatwa. “The Mome has said, Starlight should suffice, or a torch. Repeat, he has said, Starlight should suffice, or a torch. Possession of non-combustive forms of illumination will be ‘Prosecuted under Starlight’.”
Mercedes 312 said, “But those laws apply only within the Protectorate, isn’t that right, 761?”
“Of course, 312! And we’ll keep you – and our viewers – up to developments in the Protectorate, as soon as it rotates into Night!”
“Speaking of which!” 312 shrilled. “It’s Totality!”
Beta winked from view, and Night fell.
The screen showed only darkness. Shon saw it too, with his own eyes, but he also saw the Stars.
Shon knew, from history, that the Orthodox Protectorate, in firm control of 25% of the cities of Lagash, wanted the cycle to continue as usual; whereas the heretical Reformed Star-Cult’s mission was for civilization to survive this Night.
Shon knew all that history, but there was something about the Stars that was beyond history. The Stars on the television screen seemed… small somehow. Smaller than the screen. Faded. Not so for the Stars outside.
Shon was sitting at a chair, beside the window but set sideways to it. He sat there, shivering slightly from the Cold seeping from the window. He looked sideways into the Night. From time to time he inhaled hugely, then looked sideways into the room. For a few moments he’d look around at blue-flickering TV and table and chairs and books and Lamps casting reassuring electric light; then he’d look out at the Night again.
He did this over and over, as he had been trained. Eventually his heart stopped racing, his breathing slowed down. Viewed objectively, he thought, Night is actually rather peaceful…
Hints of Darkness lurked in the corners of the room, despite the Lights. He could stay inside, alone with the talking heads, with Lights and hints of Darkness; or he could go out, with Darkness everywhere, but also the Stars.
On screen, Mercedes 312 said, “And in a related story, Saro City officials have declared an official curfew. All citizens are to stay indoors, with their loved ones and their Lights. We will keep you updated all Night long. Dress warmly against the Cold. Keep your Lights lit. Do not go into the Dark. Do not look at the Stars.”
Shon got up. He strode around his conapt, he put on sweater, wool cap and jacket, he got binoculars, and a hand-held Lamp, and a wrist-strapped-mini-Lamp, and forehead Lamp. He too had been preparing for the Night.
He looked over the forehead Lamp. Its crest said “Miner’s Guild”. A gift from a third cousin. He strapped it on and switched it on. A reassuring spot of light appeared in front of him.
He left the Lights on before stepping out, and the TV running too. The last he heard from it before he shut the door was the anchorwoman saying, “Repeat, do not go into the Dark. Do not look at the Stars.”
It is inevitable the Lagashians would adapt to the Night; and that they would aspire to survive the Night; and eventually succeed; but it is equally inevitable that the first such Night would surprise them. One surprise was the one in ten who ventured into the Night to see the Stars.
In the aftermath, civilization was mostly intact – except for the self-slaughtered Protectorate, its cities burned, its people mad and starving, its land open for takeover. Merely absorbing this took the surviving civilization centuries. But though the harsh madness of the Orthodox was a burden to them, they were far more baffled by the gentler madness of the Star-Struck.
For that was their name for the one in ten who volunteered to see the Stars. It turns out that Darkness and Stars are like a powerful drug, in that their effect depends on set and setting. Night was a terror to the frightened and unprepared; but to those prepared and understanding, Night was ecstasy. The Star-Struck are mad, but most are harmless and some are inspired.
Therefore I agree with both Emerson and Campbell. Elysium or Inferno, what you see in the starry Night depends on how you look.
Afterwards, Shon could not tell the tale of the Night in one piece. He remembered it in vivid scrambled fragments like a dream.
He remembered a path through a field. His lights were off, he was seeing by Starlight, in dim colorless shapes but he could see, and then he looked up, and the Stars –
The radio reported on Star-gazers. The talking heads said, one in ten went to see, despite government warnings. What are we to do with the Star-Struck? Shon and a Miner grinned at each other.
He remembered the Astronomer’s camp. They had set up telescopes and cameras, they were busy recording, all but one. That one was Night-blind, and he was lying on his back, raving a hymn to the Stars, which were all that he could see.
At the Miner camp he heard radio reports from across Lagash. Nightfall at Isak; overcast at Theremin, but an amazing view from Saro. Civil order held across Lagash… except from the Orthodox Protectorate, from which communications have ceased.
He remembered stumbling into a Miner Guild basecamp. They sat him on a bench, they gave him hot chocolate and a blanket to wrap around himself. They asked if he could see, and he said that he saw by Starlight. They asked him if he was scared, and he said that the Night is peaceful. They asked him how he was, and he said that the Stars are beautiful.
The raver at the Astronomer’s camp said that Lagash’s Moon was no moon, it was the Primary, a giant blue ball of methane gas, and rocky Lagash was one of its moons, one of many.
He remembered the Primary. It cast a big blue blot over Beta and some of the sky. All the rest of the sky swarmed with Stars.
The raver at the Astronomer’s camp said that one in two Lagashians were like Shon; not Night-blind. A retinal mutation, said the raver, formerly rare but strongly selected for each Night. The Night-blind raver said, we are evolving.
He remembered stumbling up a hillside, seeing by Starlight, the ground vague and cluttered, but up he went because up ahead was a camp of Astronomers.
To the Miner’s camp came satellite reports of firestorms in the Protectorate. One in four cities on Lagash alight, the reporters said. But in the other three in four, civil peace held.
He remembered seeing swarms of Stars, millions of them, blazing from horizon to zenith and all around. Stars in depth, near and far. Streams of stars, orbital dances of Stars, like their own suns, their own suns were Stars.
He remembered standing on a hillside, looking at the city of Saro. Each window glowed with a Light within. He looked up and saw Stars. He looked down and saw Lights. He thought: Stars on the ground, Lights in the sky.
Daybreak meant two things to the Star-Struck. On the one hand, loss; for when the Suns rise, they will never see Night or Stars again. On the other hand, victory. Civilization survives, the Star-cycle is broken, and a Second Millennium dawns.
Shon stood on a hillside facing east. The horizon was brightening; tiny blue Zeta and big red Gamma were soon to appear. At Shon’s side the raver sat, weeping; Shon had a hand on his shoulder.
“But we win,” said Shon. “We’re still here, despite the Night.”
“Yes, yes,” the raver wailed, “we lit a candle against the Darkness! But I love the Darkness, and I love the Night, and I love the Stars, and I will never, ever, see them again!”
“They’ll still be out there, beyond the Suns-dazzled sky. The Night and the Stars will wait for us,” said Shon.
The raver stopped weeping. “What, we’ll go out there?”
“Sure as Nightfall. Sure as Daybreak.”
The raver smiled. “You are Star-Struck.”
Just then Zeta cleared the horizon, and its bright blue-white light flashed over the land. Gamma’s disk rose up, and its rosy light brightened the sky, washing out the Stars.
A new Day had begun.