My View from South Hill
Tuesday, October 4, 2011
Last month my wife Amber and I were asked to lead a discussion in our county library of texts that have been influential in our lives. It was a powerful exercise for us to identify the books and stories that have shaped who we are. We learned a few things about each other as we shared our choices.
One of the readings I chose was “Nightfall,” a short story by Isaac Asimov that was already a classic when I first read it as a teenager. The story is set on a planet in the middle of a dense star cluster, whose orbit brings it close to no fewer than six bright stars that transit the sky on a daily basis. As a result it is always daylight on the planet Lagash … except for once every 2,049 years when five suns have set and the sixth is covered by a lunar eclipse.
That premise sets up the central question of Asimov’s story: What happens when nightfall, a daily occurrence for everything that lives on Earth, is instead a millennial experience?
What happens in Asimov’s story is the collapse of civilization. The citizens of Lagash have developed astronomy and mathematics, and their scientists know about the coming eclipse. Their archaeologists know that the cities of Lagash today are built on the remnants of at least nine previous civilizations, each of which was burnt to the ground with a periodicity of about 2,000 years. It is apparent that people burned their cities to the ground when faced with total darkness. But why? No one knows for sure because no one has experienced a world of total darkness. There is a religious cult that talks of something called “stars” that appear when the sky goes dark. They say stars have the power to drive people insane, but most people on Lagash dismiss these faith-based speculations.
As the eclipse of the only visible sun in the Lagash sky proceeds and night begins to fall, the astronomers wait with foreboding. Some among them had hypothesized that the universe might be several light years in breadth, with perhaps an additional dozen stars in the sky so distant from Lagash as to be invisible under normal daylight conditions. They are on the right track, but the reality of the situation becomes apparent only as the eclipse becomes total. Thousands of stars are revealed in night sky as seen from within a dense star cluster. In the cities people begin to burn their homes in a desperate effort to create light and escape the nighttime sky. Aton, the chief astronomer, can only whimper, “Stars – all the Stars – we didn’t know at all. We didn’t know anything. We thought six stars [made up the] universe …”
Can we view the night sky the way a Lagashian would? Go out on a dark, clear night, lie on the ground, and really look up at the sky. You will get a feeling of falling into space. You will sense the unfathomable distances, the cold, and what Asimov called the awful indifference of the universe to our small and frail lives. We cannot see the sky the way Lagashians would, but we can get a tingle of the discomfort that was in them so extreme as to cause them to burn their cities.
Put the shoe on the other foot. What might Lagashians experience on a daily basis that would for us be deeply disorienting? What would happen to our circadian rhythms on a planet where daylight never ends? How would our emotional state be affected by the fluctuations in gravity that must occur on a planet whose orbit is affected by six nearby stars?
The story of Lagash is a simple one, written for the pleasure of adolescents and young adults. Even so, I have never looked at the night sky the same way since reading those 30 pages. Books are created by the imaginations of authors, but they live in the imaginations of readers. They may be the one thing more powerful than even the night sky.
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