Nightfall Summary
by Isaac Asimov

Start Your Free Trial

Nightfall Summary

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Download Nightfall Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Theremon 762 is trying to get an interview from Aton 77 regarding the collapse of civilization, which Aton and his colleagues at the university have predicted will occur in a few hours’ time. After some hesitation, Aton agrees to give Theremon the interview. This interview, with several digressions and interruptions, forms the bulk of the story. The first interruption is the entrance of Sheerin 501, a fat, jovial psychologist, who actually provides most of Theremon’s information. He has just come from the Hideout, a refuge where some three hundred people with food, weapons, and scientific data will wait out the coming disaster and try to preserve the planet Lagash’s civilization.

As Sheerin explains, civilization on Lagash is cyclic. Every two thousand years, something happens that causes the existing civilization to be destroyed by fire, from which a new order has to be rebuilt slowly. The “Book of Revelations” of a religious organization, the Cult, claims that periodically a great darkness engulfs Lagash and then things called Stars appear in the sky that cause men to go mad. In the current scientific age, this theory is largely discredited, but Aton and other members of Sara Observatory have been claiming for the past few months that such an event will occur. They have constructed the Hideout and are now preparing to record the coming of the Darkness for the use of the refugees.

The major difference between Isaac Asimov’s planet Lagash and Earth is that Lagash orbits around a star that is part of a complex system of six stars. Regularly alternating nights and days are unknown on Lagash because there is almost always at least one sun in the sky. Lagash’s scientists have only recently analyzed this situation, beginning four hundred years previously, when Genovi discovered that Lagash orbited the star Alpha, replacing the older geocentric cosmology. Since then, astronomers have been plotting the orbits of the six suns until the Law of Universal Gravitation was applied to account for their motions. Recently, unaccounted for variations have been observed. Using data supplied by the Cult, Aton has discovered a moon orbiting Lagash that had not been noticed because the light from the suns had rendered it invisible. Further research has shown that this moon will eclipse the sun Beta, a small red companion to Alpha, when Beta is the only sun in the sky and when the relative distances of Beta and the moon are such that the moon completely blocks out all light from Beta for more than half a day, so that all of Lagash is deprived of sunlight. These eclipses will coincide exactly with the collapse of Lagashian civilization.

Theremon asks how half a day of darkness could drive everyone mad, and Sheerin explains that human beings (at least those on Lagash, which has no night) cannot stand more than a few hours of darkness without going mad. Theremon himself is noticeably uneasy when the room he and Sheerin are in is cut off from sunlight for several minutes. The public reaction to the Darkness will be to burn anything in order to dispel it, and civilization will be gone.

Sheerin’s discourse is interrupted when Latimer 25 breaks into the observatory and tries to destroy the photographic plates that will be used to record the Darkness and the Stars. Presumably acting under orders from Sor 5, head of the Cult, Latimer has tried to prevent scientific recording of the Darkness, that will turn it into a mere natural phenomenon and not a divine intervention, just as Aton’s use of data supplied by the Cult for his research proved that the Cult’s “Book of Revelations” was scientifically correct but in doing so destroyed its religious significance. Just as Latimer is subdued, the eclipse of Beta begins. The astronomers move to their assigned tasks, Sheerin tells Theremon of the probable origin of the “Book of Revelations,” and Latimer begins prophesying from the book. The eclipse causes a panic in Saro City and at the...

(The entire section is 1,903 words.)