Wednesday, October 10, 2012

"Nightfall"- An Illuminating Short Story by Issac Asimov

Writing legend Issac Asimov added to the genre of science fiction in a big way, most notably with his short story collection on robotic intelligence in I, Robot. One of his lesser known stories, "Nightfall" explores something entirely different: the limits of human knowledge.
On the distant planet, Kalgash, an eclipse is about to take place. The thought of an eclipse has the people of Kalgash in a panic.
Kalgash is a special planet, home to six suns. Six suns means that Kalgash is in a constant state of light. Darkness is a foreign concept to Kalgash citizens. They do not even fully realize what stars are, or that an eclipse is a natural occurrence, not a supernatural event to fear.
Every 2,049 years, Kalgash has an eclipse. With each eclipse, civilization collapses due to insanity born of the fear of darkness. The only people that survive the eclipses without going insane are children, the elderly, and drunkards.
The premise of the story seems ridiculous: one night of darkness is capable of collapsing 2,049 years of civilization? Yet, humans always fear what they cannot understand. Author Isaac Asimov takes note of this, and one of the characters in “Nightfall” says “[of the stars and darkness] You can’t conceive that! Your brain wasn’t built for the conception of infinity or of eternity. You can only talk about it. A fraction of the reality upsets you, and when the real thing comes, your brain is going to be presented with the phenomenon outside its limits of comprehension. You will go mad” (Asimov p. 8).
Stars, like infinity, are beyond the characters comprehension. One character has a ‘cute notion’ of the possible number of stars in the sky, stating there could only be a dozen or so, and no more. Another misconception shared by Kalgash citizens is the idea that a planet with only one sun would be uninhabitable because “Life--which is fundamentally dependent upon light---[cannot] develop under those conditions [of partial darkness]” (Asimov p. 17).
Religion is another part of the story that Asimov ridicules. The Cultists are a religious group founded around the worship of darkness and stars. They are the only people of Kalgash that long for the eclipse, as they believe that starlight will cleanse their immortal souls. There are Earthbound religions that share similar sentiments of a promised salvation that must always come hand-in-hand with apocalyptic prophesies.
Asimov’s story takes perceptions of what is possible and turns it on its head. From the perspective of an Earthling, Kalgash citizens are laughable in their ignorance. The scary thing is that we Earthlings have our own dangerous misconceptions.

“Nightfall” is a short story full of commentary on the true limits of human knowledge. In thinking that we know everything (Asimov is telling the reader), we know nothing. All of our petty reasonings designed to understand the scope of the universe and its inner workings are inadequate, especially when they’re founded on fear and superstition instead of fact.

Asimov, Isaac. “Nightfall”. Astounding Science Fiction (1941). Print .


  1. This is totally wrong, the planet is Kalgash, it is chaos every 2,049 years.

    1. Yes, you're right. Thanks for the corrections, I wouldn't have noticed otherwise.

  2. It's Lagash, not Kalgash.

    1. The name of the planet is different depending on which version of "Nightfall" is read. In the short story printing, it is referred to as Lagash, while in the novel adaptation, it is indeed Kalgash. Both are correct.

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