When I was fourteen, or thereabouts, one of the very first novels I read was the Foundation Trilogy of Isaac Asimov. Foundation is for anyone so presumptuous, as I was and still am, to have an interest in “big history”- the rise and fall of civilizations, the place of civilization within the history earth and the universe, the wonder at where we will be millenia hence, a spellbinding tale.
The Foundation Trilogy tells the story of the social mathematician, Hari Seldon, who invents the field of psychohistory which allows him to be able to predict the fall of the Galactic Empire in which he lives. The fall of the galaxy spanning empire will lead to a dark age that will last 35,000 years. Seldon comes up with a plan to shorten this period of darkness to only a millennium by establishing foundations that will preserve and foster learning at opposite ends of the galaxy.
My understanding of the origins of the Foundation Trilogy was that it was one of the greatest examples ever of a writer breaking free from the vice -grip of writer’s block. In 1942 Asimov was at a complete loss as to what he should write. Scanning his bookshelf he saw a copy of Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and started to read, and soon had the plot of all plots, an idea that would see him through not just the Foundation Trilogy, but a series of works- fourteen in all.
I found it strange, then, when I picked up a book that represented our 21st century version of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall , a book by Ian Morris entitled Why the West Rules- For Now: The Patterns of History and What They Reveal About the Future,
that Morris made reference not to Foundation, but to a short story by Asimov that was written prior, which I had never heard of called Nightfall. *
Next time I want to do a full review of Morris’ fascinating book. For those so inclined, please do not be put off by the title. Morris is something much different from Eurocentrists who usually write books with such titles, and if he has the courage to write a meta-history in an age when respectable scholars are supposed to be more humble in the face of their ignorance and deliberately narrow in their purported expertise, his is a self-conscious meta-narrative that fully acknowledges the limits of our knowledge and of its author. Morris is also prone to creative leaps, and he borrows and redefines for his purposes two concepts of the human future. The first is one often talked about on this blog, The Singularity, and the second an idea from Asimov- the idea of social collapse found in Asimov’s aforementioned, Nightfall.
Like Foundation, Nightfall is also a tale of a civilization’s end, but it is not the gradual corrosion and decay found in Gibbon or Asimov’s other stories but of swift and total collapse. (The reason, no doubt, Morris chose it as his version of a negative future Again, more on that next time).
Nightfall, too, has a story around its origins. Asimov was discussing a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson with the editor of Astounding Stories, John W. Campbell, that:
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!
Campbell thought instead that people would very likely go mad.
Nightfall takes place on the imaginary world of Lagash. The planet is located in a star systems with six suns to the effect that it is always daytime on Lagash. The plot centers around a group of scientists at Saro University who discover that their civilization is headed towards a collapse that has been cyclically repeated (every 2049 years) many many times.
The most unbelievable element of Nightfall isn’t this cyclical collapse, which looks a lot like the “Maya Apocalypse” that a host of poor souls got sucked up into just last month, but the collaboration between scientists from different fields within the university, indeed, bordering on what E.O. Wilson has called “consilience”. You have a psychologist studying the psychological effects of darkness on Lagashians, an archeologist who has found evidence of repeated civilizational collapse, an astronomer who has discovered irregularities in the orbit of Lagash, and a physicist, and one of the main characters, Aton, who puts the whole thing together, and realizes that all of this fits with an invisible (because of the light) body orbiting Lagash that causes an eclipse and a brief night every two millennia that results in the destruction of civilization.
The other main character, Theremon, is a journalist who has written on a religious group, “The Cult” who have a distinct set of beliefs about the end of days handed down in their “Book of Revelation” (ugh). The belief entails the destruction of the world by a darkness in which flames in the sky rain down fire upon the earth and the souls of the living flow out into the heavens. The presentation of Theremon as a hardscrapple reporter, rather than, say, a scholar of religion, is the only thing that dates Nightfall as a story written in the early 20th century. One has no idea that as Asimov is writing civilization around him was in fact in a state of collapse as world war raged.
Why does nightfall bring the collapse of civilization on Lagash? For one, people become psychologically unhinged by darkness. Lagashians, evolved for eternal day, feel they are being suffocated when darkness falls. Without darkness, they have had no need to invent artificial light. When darkness falls, it is not fire from the heavens that destroys their own civilization, but the fact that they inadvertently burn their cities to the ground, lighting everything they can find on fire to escape the night.
In some ways, I think, Asimov was playing with all sorts of ideas about technology, science, and religion with Nightfall. After all, it was the taming of fire that stands as the legendary gift of Prometheus, the technology that gave rise to human civilization destroys the civilization of Lagash. The faculty of Saro, like we humans, undergo their own version of a Copernican Revolution. Just as our relative position in the space blinded us for so long to the heliocentric nature of the solar system, and just as our inability to see with the naked eye past Jupiter, let alone out past the Milky Way, blinded us to the scale of the cosmos, Lagashians are blinded by their own position of being surrounded by six suns that hide the night sky. The astronomer, Beenay, speculates in Nightfall that perhaps what the “Cultist” saw with the fall of darkness were other suns more distant than the six that surround Lagash as many as “a dozen or two, maybe”. Theremon responds:
Two dozen suns in a universe eight light years across. Wow! That would shrink our world into insignificance.
Asimov is also playing with the tendency of all of us, even scientists, to get imaginatively stuck in the world which they know. Beenay can imagine a world like our own with only one sun, but he thinks life on such a strange world would be impossible, because the sun would only shine on such a planet for half of the day, and constant sunlight, as the Lagashians know, is necessary for life.
Whereas Asimov localizes the myopia that comes from seeing the universe from a particular point in space and time the physicist, Lawrence Krauss, in a recent talk for the Singularity University, places such myopia from our place within the overall history of the universe. Before 1910, with Edwin Hubble and his telescopes, people thought they lived in a static universe with only one galaxy- our own. Today we know we live in an expanding universe with many billions of galaxies. Krauss points out that in the far future of a universe such as our own which is expanding, and in which local regions of galaxies are converging, future astronomers will not be able to see past their own galaxy even as we now do into the past of the universe including telltale signs of the beginning of the universe such as the cosmic background radiation. What they will see, the only thing they will be able to see, is the galaxy in which they live surrounded by seemingly infinite darkness- exactly the kind of universe astronomers thought we lived in in 1910.
Asimov’s, Nightfall, and Krauss’s future universe should not, however, encourage the hubris that we are uniquely placed to know the truth about the universe. Rather, it cautions us that we may be missing something very important by the myopia inherent in seeing the universe from a very particular point in space and time.
If all that weren’t enough, Asimov’s, Nightfall, is playing with the conflict between science and religion. The work of the scientist at Saro threatens to undercut the sacred meaning of nightfall for the Cultists. Indeed, the Cultist appear to hold beliefs that are part “Maya apocalypse” part pre-Copernican Christian cosmology regarding the abode of God and the angels being in the “heavenly spheres”. Whereas the scientists at Saro have set up a kind of mass fall out shelter in which a number of Lagashians can survive nightfall, and intend to photograph what happens as a sort of message in a bottle for the next civilization on Lagash to witness the darkness, the Cultists try to sabotage the recording of night and to destroy the observatory in which the scientists at Saro have retreated. Their own religious convictions being more important than the survival of civilization and scientific truth.
Ian Morris thought the 70 year old short-story Nightfall had something very important to say to us of the early 21st century, and I very much agree. Why exactly Morris, who is, after all, a historian and archaeologist interested in very long cycles of history would see this strange story of immediate collapse as a warning we should heed will be my subject of my next post…