Thursday, 17 April 2014

A Very Good Book

Warning: Spoilers Ahead for Nightfall by Isaac Asimov and Robert Silverberg
I really like to read and one of the rather many books I read last year is Nightfall by Isaac Asimov and Robert Silberberg (originally a short story by Asimov, it was turned into a novel by Silverberg in 1990). Written with a sincere love of science that really shines through, the premise is the most scrumptious bit about this book: Kalgash is a planet in a stellar system of six suns and its inhabitants consequently experience continuous daytime. Not knowing darkness, they have not evolved any mechanisms for coping with it and most of them lose their minds from darkness.
Continuous daytime, that is, until when only one of the six suns is above the horizon and happens to be covered by a twin planet, causing a solar eclipse once every 2049 years, the darkness from which leads to the inhabitants descending into madness. Nightfall may thus be thought of as a story in which it dawns upon the people of a grand civilization that they are in a large-scale version of the Greek myth of Sisyphos, the one-time king who was punished by the Gods for chicanery to roll a rock up a hill, only for the rock to tumble down once the top was about reached so he had to start all over again.
When the story begins, several scientific discoveries are about to reveal this fate. Traces of vast burnings have been found and revealed by carbon dating to recur at 2049-year intervals, and observations of Kalgash's movement in the stellar system have been thought to challenge the established laws of physics - unless there might be a twin planet. At the same time, an amusement park is ordered to close its recently-added attraction in which brave thrill-seekers are exposed to complete darkness, as many of the patrons had to be committed to mental institutions afterwards. If exposed to further darkness, they would have craved light to the extent that everything in sight was thought of as something to be burnt to satisfy their cravings, repeating what many more Kalgashians had done 2049 years before.
Once the new findings have been established, the logical deductions made, and the Day of Doom calculated to occur in about a year's time, an interdisciplinary group of scientists attempt to convince the world that necessary precautions must be made. The problem is that the unexpectedness and the unfathomability of the civilization-wide death sentence has the effect that people refuse to believe what they hear. Too few precautionary steps are taken, and in addition to the scientists and some scattered individuals, a group of religious zealots are the only people to have prepared for darkness and, consequently, to retain full use of their mental faculties.
Again, what I found to be this book's greatest feature is its premise of recurrent Doom. Somewhat underexplored I found the mechanisms behind the vast majority's refusal to heed the warnings. I would think it fairly easy and rational to seek shelter with a group of like-minded individuals. If one doubts the veracity of the pernicious solar eclipse, it is hardly a great sacrifice to spend just one day in the proximity of facilities that ease the effects of darkness.

Now because of the 2049 years of sunlight, Kalgash cannot produce sufficient energy to safely light the planet at only a year's notice. Fortified large-roomed buildings (so one light source reaches more space) and power generators would be easily obtained by those convinced by sound science, however. Particularly if few others believed the Doomsday to be nigh, so that whatever were the interest rates at the time of discovery, the scientists and those convinced by their findings would happily borrow otherwise crazy amounts (since while few others believe in impending doom, borrowed money is unlikely to have to be repaid).

The book in no way (as far as I can remember anyway) gets the economics plainly wrong. My complaint is quantitative rather than qualitative. There are some shelters and some preparations have been made. It is possible that the vast majority of Kalgashians simply bet that Nightfall was not going to happen. To persons unfamiliar with picking apart arguments, the warnings of Doom may well look like the lunacy of a small minority of fanatics which we Earthlings witnessed ahead of the 22nd December 2012. But I like to think that rather a lot of people have at least some respect for logically coherent argument. These people would have put their money where their mouths were, and bought as much protection as was possible. Noticing that a lot of people were disregarding their warnings and were consequently going to go insane, they would have found it a palatable alternative to borrow money to hire goons for protection and electricity generators for lighting.

All of these things send signals to producers that the demand schedules for these things have now shifted to the right and so the quantities produced go up. Price movements in capital markets would send signals that something's afoot. It is one thing to doubt crazies merely talking about impending disaster. It is much harder to doubt those who - beside having logic on their side - do everything in their power to ensure survival. Nightfall would still bring awful consequences given that it was only predicted a year or so in advance, but I find the scale of destruction in the book just a little bit overblown.

It would be cruelly unfair to focus on the one nit I have to pick in what is otherwise such a wonderfully premissed book. I have not come across the short-story version written solely by Asimov, but I hope I will as I would like to explore how well the same stuff could be fitted into fewer pages. Since I think the greatest feature of the book is the premise, I believe the short-story version is very likely to work well. But as far as the novel goes, it turns out that, in spite of the somewhat insufficient attention to the theory of price, a book can be really enjoyable. Who would have thought it?

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