Isaac Asimov was trained as a chemist, but he achieved true immortality as a science fiction author. He wrote on every conceivable topic, including nonfiction works on the history of science and technology, The Bible, Shakespeare...His first big splash in sci-fi was the short story Nightfall, published when Asimov was only 21. You can buy your copy here:
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Welcome Everybody! To Socratica Reads. My name is Kimberly Hatch Harrison, and I’m the co-founder of Socratica. You can find our beautiful math, science and programming videos on YouTube and on our website, socratica.com.
Our aim at Socratica is to create the education of the future. So it shouldn’t surprise you to hear that our work has often been inspired by the literature of the future: science fiction. Today I’m looking back at one of the earliest works of one of my favourite authors: Isaac Asimov.
Asimov famously wrote or edited over 500 books. To say he is an inspiration to me as a writer is a weaksauce understatement!
Asimov was a chemist by training, but you probably know him best as a science fiction author—although he only wrote a handful of sci-fi novels, including Foundation. Mostly he wrote short stories, and we’re going to talk about his first short story success today—a famous little tale called Nightfall. But, full disclosure—I really love Isaac Asimov for his nonfiction. There’s hardly a topic that I’ve studied that Asimov didn’t thoroughly digest and write about in the clearest of language.
The other day, I watched an interview with Isaac Asimov and Dick Cavett from 1989, and somewhere in the middle, I couldn’t help but say out loud—what a treat it was to listen to such a clear, good-humored thinker. I love him. I just LOVE him. I’m so grateful he left so much of himself behind for us.
The thing about science fiction is that it’s this wonderful combination—it’s both a peek into someone’s pure imagination and their problem-solving brain. I mean, I KNOW that Asimov had a firm grasp on previously solved scientific problems, and he was just a GENIUS at explaining things, especially the history of science and the story behind how much of technology emerged. But his works of fiction are also very precious to me because I get to see how this incredible teacher works out a hypothetical. I get to see Asimov doing thought experiments. It’s a real treat.
Nightfall reminds me in its setup of the very first science fiction story I can remember reading: All Summer in a Day, by Ray Bradbury. I talked about it in my first episode of this podcast. In that story, set on Venus, there are constant violent rainstorms, and the people who live there only get to see the Sun very briefly, once every seven years. So there, one thought experiment is: What would that do to people? How would they feel about the Sun, and how would they treat that event. Imagine if you missed your chance to see the Sun and feel the Sun. I maintain it’s the saddest story in the whole world.
In Nightfall, Asimov creates an even more extreme situation: what if you only saw the stars once every couple thousand years? What sort of mythology would grow up around the experience? As you might expect, Asimov creates a worthy hard sci-fi explanation for this scenario—the planet is normally lit by many suns, and you have to wait for all the other suns to set and the last sun is at aphelion, where it can be hidden by a solar eclipse. Only then will it be dim enough so you could actually see the stars. And this specific confluence of events would be very rare. Anticipating the stars would be like anticipating the Second Coming.
The story is prefaced with a quote from the Transcendentalist writer Ralph Waldo 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?” This is from the beginning of Emerson’s essay “Nature.” It feels fitting that a Romantic quote, a Transcendental quote, starts this work. Because on this planet, seeing the stars is so beyond people’s understanding—so Transcendant an Experience—that it’s ASSUMED very likely it will cause you to go mad.
We’re unraveling the mysteries of the universe as we speak, and it does make me wonder what CAN we handle. Will we be able to cope with discovering life elsewhere? What about parallel universes? Are we so jaded, so blase, that we’ll be able to accept anything and everything? Or is there something out there that could make us absolutely run amok?
Because this is one of Asimov’s first works, it makes me really pay attention to how he did it. How did he pull it off as a novice writer. Asimov uses a familiar device in this story—an outsider comes around asking a lot of questions. In this case it’s a journalist asking the scientists at the observatory to explain the situation. That way it doesn’t just feel like a lot of exposition. Which is nice for the reader, because all too often sci fi writers fall into this trap of listing off all the details they’ve figured out - I’m looking at you, Neal Stephenson.
I’m going to read this part of Nightfall to you now. Are you ready? Let’s begin.
The psychologist grumbled wordlessly. He turned to Theremon, impaled him with his sharp eyes, and began. 'You realize, of course, that the history of civilization on Lagash displays a cyclic character -- but I mean cyclic!'
'I know,' replied Theremon cautiously,'that that is the current archaeological theory. Has it been accepted as a fact?'
'Just about. In this last century it's been generally agreed upon. This cyclic character is -- or rather, was -- one of the great mysteries. We've located series of civilizations, nine of them definitely, and indications of others as well, all of which have reached heights comparable to our own, and all of which, without exception, were destroyed by fire at the very height of their culture. 'And no one could tell why. All centers of culture were thoroughly gutted by fire, with nothing left behind to give a hint as to the cause.'
Theremon was following closely. 'Wasn't there a Stone Age, too?'
'Probably, but as yet practically nothing is known of it, except that men of that age were little more than rather intelligent apes. We can forget about that.'
'I see. Go on!'
There have been explanations of these recurrent catastrophes, all of a more or less fantastic nature. Some say that there are periodic rains of fire; some that Lagash passes through a sun every so often; some even wilder things. But there is one theory, quite different from all of these, that has been handed down over a period of centuries.'
'I know. You mean this myth of the "Stars" that the Cultists have in their Book of Revelations.'
'Exactly,' rejoined Sheerin with satisfaction. 'The Cultists said that every two thousand and fifty years Lagash entered a huge cave, so that all the suns disappeared, and there came total darkness all over the world! And then, they say, things called Stars appeared, which robbed men of their souls and left them unreasoning brutes, so that they destroyed the civilization they themselves had built up. Of course they mix all this up with a lot of religio-mystic notions, but that's the central idea.'
There was a short pause in which Sheerin drew a long breath.
'And now we come to the Theory of Universal Gravitation.' He pronounced the phrase so that the capital letters sounded -- and at that point Aton turned from the window, snorted loudly, and stalked out of the room.
The two stared after him, and Theremon said, 'What's wrong?'
'Nothing in particular,' replied Sheerin. 'Two of the men were due several hours ago and haven't shown up yet. He's terrifically short-handed, of course, because all but the really essential men have gone to the Hideout.'
You don't think the two deserted, do you?'
'Who? Faro and Yimot? Of course not. Still, if they're not back within the hour, things would be a little sticky.' He got to his feet suddenly, and his eyes twinkled.
'Anyway, as long as Aton is gone -- ' Tiptoeing to the nearest window, he squatted, and from the low window box beneath withdrew a bottle of red liquid that gurgled suggestively when he shook it.
'I thought Aton didn't know about this,' he remarked as he trotted back to the table. 'Here! We've only got one glass so, as the guest, you can have it. I'll keep the bottle.' And he filled the tiny cup with judicious care. Theremon rose to protest, but Sheerin eyed him sternly.
'Respect your elders, young man.'
The newsman seated himself with a look of anguish on his face. 'Go ahead, then, you old villain.'
The psychologist's Adam's apple wobbled as the bottle upended, and then, with a satisfied grunt and a smack of the lips, he began again. 'But what do you know about gravitation?'
'Nothing, except that it is a very recent development, not too well established, and that the math is so hard that only twelve men in Lagash are supposed to understand it.'
'Tcha! Nonsense! Baloney! I can give you all the essential math in a sentence. The Law of Universal Gravitation states that there exists a cohesive force among all bodies of the universe, such that the amount of this force between any two given bodies is proportional to the product of their masses divided by the square of the distance between them.'
'Is that all?'
'That's enough! It took four hundred years to develop it.'
'Why that long? It sounded simple enough, the way you said it.'
'Because great laws are not divined by flashes of inspiration, whatever you may think. It usually takes the combined work of a world full of scientists over a period of centuries. After Genovi 4I discovered that Lagash rotated about the sun Alpha rather than vice versa -- and that was four hundred years ago -- astronomers have been working. The complex motions of the six suns were recorded and analyzed and unwoven. Theory after theory was advanced and checked and counterchecked and modified and abandoned and revived and converted to something else. It was a devil of a job.'
Theremon nodded thoughtfully and held out his glass for more liquor. Sheerin grudgingly allowed a few ruby drops to leave the bottle.
'It was twenty years ago,' he continued after remoistening his own throat, 'that it was finally demonstrated that the Law of Universal Gravitation accounted exactly for the orbital motions of the six suns. It was a great triumph.'
Sheerin stood up and walked to the window, still clutching his bottle. 'And now we're getting to the point. In the last decade, the motions of Lagash about Alpha were computed according to gravity, and if did not account for the orbit observed; not even when all perturbations due to the other suns were included. Either the law was invalid, or there was another, as yet unknown, factor involved.'
Theremon joined Sheerin at the window and gazed out past the wooded slopes to where the spires of Saro City gleamed bloodily on the horizon. The newsman felt the tension of uncertainty grow within him as he cast a short glance at Beta. It glowered redly at zenith, dwarfed and evil.
'Go ahead, sir,' he said softly.
Sheerin replied, 'Astronomers stumbled about for year, each proposed theory more untenable than the one before -- until Aton had the inspiration of calling in the Cult. The head of the Cult, Sor 5, had access to certain data that simplified the problem considerably. Aton set to work on a new track.
'What if there were another nonluminous planetary body such as Lagash? If there were, you know, it would shine only by reflected light, and if it were composed of bluish rock, as Lagash itself largely is, then, in the redness of the sky, the eternal blaze of the suns would make it invisible -- drown it out completely.'
Theremon whistled. 'What a screwy idea!'
'You think that's screwy? Listen to this: Suppose this body rotated about Lagash at such a distance and in such an orbit and had such a mass that its attention would exactly account for the deviations of Lagash's orbit from theory -- do you know what would happen?'
The columnist shook his head.
'Well, sometimes this body would get in the way of a sun.' And Sheerin emptied what remained in the bottle at a draft.
'And it does, I suppose,' said Theremon flatly.
'Yes! But only one sun lies in its plane of revolution.' He jerked a thumb at the shrunken sun above. 'Beta! And it has been shown that the eclipse will occur
only when the arrangement of the suns is such that Beta is alone in its hemisphere and at maximum distance, at which time the moon is invariably at minimum distance. The eclipse that results, with the moon seven times the apparent diameter of Beta, covers all of Lagash and lasts well over half a day, so that no spot on the planet escapes the effects. That eclipse comes once every two thousand and forty nine years.'
Theremon's face was drawn into an expressionless mask.
'And that's my story?'
The psychologist nodded. 'That's all of it. First the eclipse -- which will start in three quarters of an hour -- then universal Darkness and, maybe, these mysterious Stars -- then madness, and end of the cycle.'
He brooded. 'We had two months' leeway -- we at the Observatory -- and that wasn't enough time to persuade Lagash of the danger. Two centuries might not have been enough. But our records are at the Hideout, and today we photograph the eclipse. The next cycle will start off with the truth, and when the next eclipse comes, mankind will at last be ready for it. Come to think of it, that's part of your story too.'
If you haven’t read any of Asimov’s beautiful writing before, I hope this inspires you to add him to your bookshelves. This was Asimov as a young man, and just imagine what years of reading and research and writing did for him. I hope I grow up to be just like him.