Nightfall

Van Gough Starry Night

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.

Indeed.


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…

*In 1990, the story was adapted into a novel with Robert Silverberg.
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Blame Zarathustra

The story in its most simplified form goes something like this: the world has fallen into a deep state of chaos and death. All the old ways have collapsed and everyone is confused and does not know what to do, they are lost. The reason this is happening is that there is a war enveloping the cosmos.  A force of disorder, an order based upon the power of lies, has set itself against the peace and good of the world. They have launched a war for the possession of the future. Each individual must now choose sides in the great and coming battle. They can choose to join the side of evil, lies and disorder or the side of the good, truth and peace. Ultimately, the good will prevail, the unjust will be punished and the peace of the world will be restored, not just for a time, but for all eternity.  This will be the final battle, the birth of paradise.

This narrative makes for great story telling- just think of the world of J.R. Tolkien or Star Wars, and were it the case that such stories were only part of our fantasies there would be no issue, and they would remain what they should be, a great piece of childish fun.

The problem, of course, occurs when such narratives are overlain on political and social reality, for the passion and blindness these kinds of stories engender can be found behind some of the bloodiest events of human history. To name only the most prominent: the religious wars of the Reformation and Counter Reformation, including the English Civil War, the Inquisition, the Terror of the French Revolution, the American Civil War, the internal terror of the Stalinist Soviet Union, Nazism, the Second World War, the Red Scare, the Cold War, Islamist terrorism, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Something about these types of stories seem to tap into a primal element in human beings, nevertheless, their origin can be traced to historical time.

Zarathustra, otherwise known as Zoroaster, was probably the person most responsible for having first created and popularized a version of this story around 1200 B.C.E. What he had discovered was a “technology” that enabled human beings to engage in a kind of mass tribalism. Dividing whole societies or even all of human-kind into two warring armies created what were in effect super-tribes joined to one another with the kind of depth of feeling and exclusiveness that was once the monopoly of extended kin-groups.  It was a passion that was able to override biological instinct and turn “brother against brother”, and allowed human beings to murder one another in “good conscience” on the grounds that they were waged in battle with an army of demons.

Zarathustra was not trying to do this. What he was seeking after was a path to peace.

The Aryan society in which he lived had gone from an age of idyllic pastoralists to one of warriors. The catalyst for this transition had been, as it has been many times since, technological transformation.  Aryans living in what is now southern Russia had come in contact with the more advanced civilizations in Armenia and Mesopotamia to the south.  From these societies the Aryans learned the art of iron weaponry and the chariot, which sparked a wave of war and banditry, as the whole of the steppe was consumed in violence. The gentle gods of the Arayans gave way to the cult of the militarized Indra- the dragon slayer.

Zarathustra, a priest of the old Aryan gods sought out an answer to the bloodshed. Dreams and visitations came to him. Nothing took place on earth which was not a reflection of the things of heaven. Perhaps Indra and his devas- the shining ones- had brought war not just upon the earth, but upon the just gods of old, the amesha- the immortals.

Then, Zarathustra was visited by the greatest of the amesha- Mazda- lord of wisdom and justice.  Lord Mazda told Zarathustra that he was to mobilize the people for a coming holy war against the forces of evil.

Who could challenge the great Lord Mazda, the most powerful of the amesha?  Zarathustra reasoned that Mazda must have a divine opposite, a god of equal power dedicated to disorder and evil- the god of the lie- Angra Mainyu.

Every human being was called to choose sides in the great and looming battle. ..

It was here that Zarathustra introduced his greatest innovation, for he abandoned the cyclical view of history that had been perhaps the only way human beings, up until then, had thought about time.  In cyclical history time spun round and round within regular cycles of birth, strength, decay and death, historical seasons to match the natural one.  Zarathustra broke free from this cycle. The world was racing toward an end of history- a climax and day of judgment. The great battle would end in the victory of Lord Mazda over the forces of the wicked. A blazing river of fire would run from the heavens into hell and destroy forever the spirit of evil. The world would become a final paradise. . .

Zarathustra crafted his tale on the eve of the Axial Age, a period of religious awakening that gave us some of the deepest, most influential, and compassionate figures of human history: the Buddha, Socrates, Confucius.  But his story lived on. It lived on in the The Book of Revelation, in the 12th Iman of the Shia branch of Islam, it lived on in the religious wars, the idea of world revolution found in communism, in Hitler’s anti-Semitic insanity… in the current apocalyptic logic behind the looming confrontation with Iran.

It is the world’s most dangerous fairy-tale, and if we do not someday soon break its spell, its dark side will come true.