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Tuesday, 14 December 2010

A short review of 'Nightfall', a short story by Isaac Asimov

Nightfall was Isaac Asimov's first big hit as a science fiction writer, published when he was only 21 and working in his father's candy store. But it was voted the Best Science Fiction Short Story in the twenty-five years after he wrote it.

The plot of Nightfall revolves around an idea first voiced by 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!

In Asimov's take on the question, Night falls like clockwork at the end of every 2049-year Cycle, but only the Cultists are able to preserve any remembrance of Nightfall into the next Cycle, and only in The Book of Revelations, described in the Story as fugitive memories of children, combined with the confused, half-incoherent babblings of half-mad morons; the testimony of those least qualified to serve as historians, probably edited and re-edited through the Cycles--a mass of distortion, even if it was based on fact.

But at the end of this last Cycle, the sciences of astronomy, archaeology and psychology have reached such a peak that representatives of these disciplines--fully cognizant of what is about to happen--along with a still-skeptical journalist, are determined to do what they can to preserve civilization through the four-hour Night and into the next Cycle.

But they run into a problem. The Cultists, having shared the Prophecies of the Book of Revelation with the Scientists, are disgruntled by the Scientists' de-mystification of The Book. Latimer accuses Anton, "Your pretended [scientific] explanation backed our beliefs, and at the same time removed all necessity for them. You made of the Darkness and the Stars a natural phenomenon and removed all its real significance. That was blasphemy."

Aton replied, "If so, the fault isn't mine. The facts exist. What can I do but state them?"

"Your 'facts' are a fraud and a delusion."

Aton stamped angrily. "How do you know?"

And the answer came back with the certainty of absolute faith. "I know!"

Asimov got one thing right: the conflict between the Scientists and the Cultists is absolute. Both agree that Night is coming; but whilst the Cultists believe that it is the coming judgment of God upon unbelievers, the Scientists are convinced that it is simply an eclipse which takes place every 2049 years, bringing several hours of darkness to a six-sunned world that, in the cyclic cataclysm that always follows, has again forgotten the previous Night. The Cultists' vague solution is to simply have faith in the Book of Revelations, so as to escape the Madness that always ensues when the Stars Come Out. The Cultists are convinced that anyone who believes what the Scientists are saying is doomed to madness brought on by exposure to Stars. The Scientists are convinced that anyone who believes what the Cultists are saying is doomed to madness brought on by exposure to Darkness (both being equally unknown on Lagash). And of course, this being Asimov's world, the Scientists are right and the Cultists wrong. But both go equally mad when Darkness falls and the Stars come out, because in this world of Asimov's, darkness inevitably brings about madness, with or without stars and regardless of one's beliefs.

The parallels to our world are clear, Asimov being an atheist and a scientist. The forces of Rationalism are on the one side, the forces of Religion on another. Whilst the Scientists can understand and even explain the beliefs of the Cultists, they know better than to share them. The Cultists, on their part, reject all Scientific thought as blasphemy and do all they can to defeat Scientific progress.

Asimov is clearly alluding to the long conflict between Creationists, whom he portrays as the Cultists, and Evolutionists, whom he portrays as the Scientists. But in setting up the conflict, Asimov has it exactly backwards. It is the Evolutionists who cannot understand Creationists, whilst Creationists can fully understand and clearly explain the tenets of Evolutionism. It is Evolutionists who pour their efforts into silencing the Creationists, declaring their beliefs Dangerous and Abusive. And contrary to the state of things on Lagash, it is the Creationists who, starting from a belief in The Book, went on to discover astronomy, archaeology, and psychology--and the Evolutionists who retard progress, lest it violate their sacred beliefs.

What concerns me the most about this state of affairs is that Asimov couldn't see that he had it backwards. No creationists have broken into science labs to destroy the observation equipment, as Latimer did on Lagash. No creationist mobs have marched on an observatory, torches in hand. No creationist has effectively muzzled scientific debate. Yet clearly, Asimov, genius that he was, operated on the assumption that they would if they could, blind to all the evidence that the shoe is in fact on the other foot. And thus it ever is with Rationalists.

As a creationist, I am a mortal enemy to the Truth as Asimov saw it. I must be silenced, lest I blaspheme the Truth. I must be denied a platform, lest I lead my nation into another age of Darkness. I must not be allowed to come to power, or I will do to them as they desire to do to me. And the reason he is clearly wrong and I am clearly right? Well, it's obvious: his scientific explanations have removed all necessity for my beliefs. He made of the Bible and the Creation natural phenomena and removed all their real significance.

And this, despite all evidence to the contrary.

There are more articles on this topic here and here.


  1. This blog gets a lot of hits from Russia; in fact, some weeks it's right up there under the USA for number of hits per country. I suspect that most of these are spam hits, but I have noticed that when I break it down by post, this post attracts a disproportionate share of hits from Russia. Any of my Russian readers care to comment as to why?

  2. This week, though, quite a few of the hits have been from Indonesia! Apparently there are some book reviews due this week.

  3. You sound like Asimov's Latimer, who just "knows." So firm in your belief, you are blind to any other interpretation. And what you claim about Creationists not stifling rational thought...I think you need to take a closer look at what is happening in the US today. Science is constantly under attack from cultists.

  4. No, you have it backwards. The creationists are the ones who refuse the heap of inconvertible evidence to the contrary and deny evolution, because anything that contradicts the Hebrew-Babylonian creation myths as they were written in the Book of Genesis several thousand years ago is blasphemy in your eyes. In other words, "I know!". You do sound just like Latimer, as the other commenter pointed out. I suggest you look at all the evidence staring you in the face, and realize that you might just be wrong.

  5. I liked your article. I just have to say, evolution is not a hypothesis, its a fact. Generations of scientists have tried to prove it wrong, but have failed. If you have scientific evidence to prove its wrong please share it with the scientific community.
    Also,religion is a cancer.It has been against critical thinking for centuries. Just take the case of Galileo. Anyways, keep sharing your views !


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