April 05, 2006


Pluvialis went to Turkey to see the total ecclipse of the Sun.

Totality is so incomprehensible for your mental machinery that your physical response becomes hugely apparent. Your intellect can't grasp any of this. Not the dark, nor the sunset clouds on every horizon, nor the stars; just that extraordinary wrongness, up there, that pulls the eyes towards it. The exhilaration is just-barely contained terror.

That bit about "terror" rang a faint bell--a memory of reading as a little boy Isaac Asimov's story "Nightfall," written in 1941 when he was just 21, and anthologized in the 1954 Astounding Science Fiction Anthology (John W. Campbell, Jr., ed.).

(Where that book came from I will never know, since neither of my parents read science fiction at all. But there it was on the living room bookshelf.)

"Nightfall" is set on a planet with six suns and an advanced civilization. But when, for the first time in millennia, all six suns set at one time, civilization collapses. Not just the common herd, but even the scientists go insane at the sight of the stars.

Asimov begins with a quote from 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!"

And then he, the non-religious science writer, suggests that such an event would instead merely reduce humans to babbling, riotous, apocalyptically religious killers swamped in a "hopeless flood of black terror."

Maybe the onset of World War II had something to do with the bleakness of his vision of "the Dark and the Cold and the Doom." Maybe not.

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