Nightfall: The Fragility of Human Nature

(In this essay, C.W. will analyze Isaac Asimov’s Nightfall and how the struggle between primitive instinct and intellect develops when an individual faces perilous circumstances. Also discussed is another theme dealing with Light and Darkness, the questionable nature of light, and the fear of the unknown.”)

Nightfall, a widely known science fiction work by the well known author, Isaac Asimov, contains several themes involving human nature. Among these themes are the deprivation and need in humanity, the popular science versus religion argument, the classic good versus evil in each individual, and primitive man versus intellectual development, more commonly titled “Brain versus Brawn”. The setting of the work gives way to the conflicts that arise in an individual when threatened.
The setting takes place in a fictional world, Lagash, where darkness is unknown. Lagash is located in a solar system where there are 6 suns constantly orbiting the planet, and therefore, there is perpetual light. One of the themes in the work is science versus religion, through which Asimov provides insight to the background information of this fictional universe.
The religion in the work is generally referred to as “Cultist”. This one religious group is referred to as Cultist, as well as by the holy book of the cult, the Book of Revelations. The only passages from this book referenced are ones describing the end times. On this planet Lagash, there is a cyclical existence. Once every 2049 years, there is an eclipse of all 6 suns, lasting a mere 2 days, during which total darkness occurs, which is called “totality”. In between cycles, few people survive, but all recordings of what occurs during the totality are uncertain because of the destruction that occurs. Because darkness is unknown, there is an imminent fear of it that is instilled in all humanity. This is best described in a passage from the work:
“You see, that Tunnel of Mystery was just a mile-long tunnel – with no lights. You got into a little open car and jolted along through darkness for fifteen minutes. It was very popular – while it lasted….There’s a fascination in being frightened when it’s part of a game. A baby is born with three instinctive fears: of loud noises, of falling, and of the absence of light. That’s why it’s considered so funny to jump at someone and shout ‘Boo!’. That’s why it’s such fun to ride a roller coaster. And that’s why the Tunnel of Mystery started cleaning up. People came out of that Darkness shaking, breathless, half dead with fear, but they kept on paying to get in” (Asimov, 343).
This passage refers to a thrill ride at a museum which was closed down because of people dying of fear. There were also results, described later in the passage, of people developing a serious fear of absence of light because of claustrophobia. Because darkness is unknown, it is feared.
Those who are religious in the story, symbolic of primitive instinct, believe that darkness occurs once every 2050 years at which time, “stars”, unlike those commonly known to reality, come out and take the souls of the people, according to the Book of Revelations. The scientists and astronomers, symbolic of human intellect, believe that every 2049 years this darkness occurs and when it does, man’s thirst for light causes them to burn anything and everything they can find, destroying the entire society. Each time this totality occurs, the few people who hide during the eclipse and survive, reemerge as a new, primitive society with no knowledge of what occurred during the eclipse.
The story opens with Theremon 762, a reporter for a newspaper, interviewing the lead scientist of a project, Aton 77. This project is essentially an attempt to survive the eclipse, and if not, at least pass a recording of events on to the next generation of society. However, because there is little record of what occurs during the totality, the scientists are simply making predictions of what will occur using their Theory of Universal Gravitation. The entire storyline takes place within the final four hours of time before the predicted eclipse will occur. As the time continues to diminish, closer and closer to the eclipse, tension within Aton and his team of scientists grows. As the final sun in the solar system, Beta, eclipses into darkness, madness takes over. Aton’s project was to prevent this from occurring by placing cameras with pictures of lights on them throughout the Observatory where he worked, but still, darkness overwhelmed the team of intellectuals. As the eclipse continues to darken Lagash, a group of Cultists approaches the observatory from Saro City and wants to destroy the observatory to allow the predictions in the Book of Revelations to materialize. Aton’s assistant, Sheerin 501, must run down the stairs in the darkness and lock the gate to prevent the Cultists from invading, but is overcome by madness and fear. The story closes with the last glimpse of light disappearing from Lagash. “A crimson glow began growing, strengthening in the brightness, that was not the glow of a sun” (362). The people of Saro City began to go mad in the darkness and burn all that they could find. This closing is very disputable between each side of an argument.
References throughout the scenes of the eclipse to blood consistently occur, describing a variety of different things. The light from the last sun, Beta, is described on several occasions as “crimson” or “bloody”. This adjective is interesting to use in this case because of the essential nature of light in this society. In such a world, where people literally can not survive without light, the description of light as “bloody” is interesting. Blood is used as a reference to violence or problems. It is a means of foreshadowing the upcoming totality which has been described as a period of destruction. Along with this description are others of light, each portraying light as a negative aspect of this world. The debate in light is whether it actually helps or hurts this society. The society exists in light, making darkness unknown and feared enough to cause madness when experienced. From each 2050 year period to the next, the light actually results in the downfall of the civilization. If there was simply a way to experience darkness normally, the totality would be but a minor period of darkness. In the end, despite common logic, the light is the downfall of the society. The presence of light for such an extensive period of time only results in a short period of devastation on the planet.
Light in this case, could be a metaphor for realistic society and the foundations of our civilization. Oil for example, is the basis for life today. Without oil, humanity would not be able to function in any capacity near the way it does now. Madness could ensue after a mere two days of the absence of oil, similar to the period of totality in the story. Darkness, or lack of oil, could easily drive one insane in our society because of the heavy reliance on it. So the question is, does such a mainstream substance help our society, or harm it? When a simple liquid like oil is exhausted, what could occur? Temporarily, oil may be the solution to many modern day issues, but over a long period of time, such an essential product could be a problem in the future. The greater the dependence on oil becomes, the more of a collapse there will be when that foundation runs out. This metaphor could be applied to many different ideas in a society such as ours, but oil seems to be an ideal debate to which the metaphor of light and darkness refers.
In the work, instinct versus intellect is also a motif. As the last sun wanes to shadow, the intellect of the scientists also dwindles. Aton, early in the work, is characterized by high self confidence, pride, and his persistent idea that he will survive this totality. Once the eclipse occurs, “Aton, somewhere, was crying, whimpering horrible like a terribly frightened child” (362). He mumbles gibberish about how little they actually knew what the darkness was like and his last description is clawing at a torch for light. He was the pinnacle of human intellect and ability. Aton was so sure that he and his team could surpass expectations survive on to the next civilization. Yet once the darkness overcame the light, all that was left was the instinct in Aton to reach for the only light he could see.
This is similar to the argument of Nature versus Nurture. No matter how much humanity prepares and works on technology, nature can not simply be dismissed and thrown off course. Nature will always be present, and always have the ability to cause insanity in the blink of an eye. Darkness in the story was simply a two day phase of nature, and it crumbled civilizations to nothing. In this work, it seems apparent that instinct had overcome intellect and that the primitive desires of humanity took over once intellect did not develop the way it was planned to. In relation to reality, humanity should never overestimate technology or intellect. Despite its value in life today, and all of the advances and developments we have, there are natural disasters and phenomenon that can wipe out civilizations in a moments notice.
Asimov certainly drives home the point of his themes with this story. He clearly demonstrates the fragility of human life, and that, when an individual or an entire society is threatened, there are inner instincts that are drawn out. He closes the work with darkness. The only light left in the story is that of the fire from the scorching Saro City and finally, “The long night had come again” (362).

C.W. 2009


Pebble in the Sky: Ignorance and Destruction

(In this literary criticism, C.W. will examine the theme of ignorance throughout Isaac Asimov’s Pebble in the Sky and the negative messages conveyed throughout the work.)

Pebble in the Sky, written by Isaac Asimov, is a science fiction novel based on Asimov’s short story, “Grow Old Along With Me”. Pebble in the Sky has a recurring theme of ignorance throughout the course of the work. This ignorance, present in various ways in the story, is portrayed with the same essential meaning. Ignorance among the various groups in the fantasy world always results in consequences.
The setting of this story begins in 20th century Earth, with the protagonist, 62 year old Joseph Schwartz. He is a retired tailor, living a humble life, when unexpectedly, a nearby nuclear laboratory experiment goes wrong and miraculously transports Joseph thousands of years into the future. At this point in time, Earth is one of thousands of planets in the Galactic Empire, where each planet is inhabited by humanity. Earth has become nearly 100% radioactive and is therefore only carries a population of 20 million people. Through a procedure called “The Sixty”, citizens of Earth are to be executed when they turn the age of 60 to keep the population low, and this becomes a problem for Joseph, a 62 year old.
The world of the future speaks a different language, which Joseph is unable to learn until he meets a farm family who believes he is mentally deficient. They put him through an experiment to give him increased abilities, but it actually gives him a surplus of intellectual abilities, allowing him to use telepathic powers.
Earth is ruled by various religious fanatics in this Empire, and they hope to achieve their goal of releasing a super virus into the Galactic Empire to avenge the way their planet has been treated by the Empire. These fanatics have rebelled several times in the past and are discriminated against in the Galactic Empire. Joseph ends up meeting an archaeologist, Bel Arvardan, a man who believes, contrary to common logic of that society, that humanity started with Earth. The two of them work together to prevent these religious fanatics from releasing the virus and eventually meet with success.
Consistently throughout the storyline, there are groups that remain ignorant, and suffer the consequences. The source of the radioactivity on Earth is not explicitly stated, but it is implied that it somehow came from the Galactic Empire. This is why citizens of Earth desire revenge.
The policy referred to as “The Sixty” is the first example of ignorance. Those above the age of 60 are euthanized to save space on Earth. This takes place with little rebellion and no issues involved. Joseph refers to this when he says:
“Old men tend to forget what thought was like in their youth; they forget the quickness of the mental jump, the daring of the youthful intuition, the agility of the fresh insight” (Asimov 158).
He brings up the fact that they simply give up on life when they grow older, and despite still being useful, allow this execution sentence to be carried out. The consequences of ignorance are displayed in this situation, similar to others in the work.
The Galactic Empire also shows ignorance at work. Despite years of Earth wanting revenge and being rebellious, they continued to neglect Earth and considered it just another “Pebble in the Sky”. This ignorance almost led to the downfall of the entire Empire through the use of the super virus that the people of Earth developed. This ignorance would have led to a universal disaster if not for the protagonist, Joseph, who prevented this from happening by destroying the virus.
Joseph in the story, one of the few people who remained focused and did not become ignorant, was the one who ended up preventing the disaster of those who were ignorant.
This ignorance is clearly a moral motif persisting throughout the work and showing the importance of being aware. In society today, awareness is clearly a topic of concern whether it is environmental awareness, or awareness for a certain disease, it is a present idea in our lives. This is important to prevent the consequences of ignorance. Asimov puts it best when he stated, “If knowledge can create problems, it is not through ignorance that we can solve them.”

C.W. 2009