Transcript: America This Week Discussion on "Nightfall," by Isaac Asimov
The famed sci-fi writer's exploration of apocalyptic thinking comes back in style, unfortunately
In a new feature started last episode, the book discussions in “America This Week” will be published separately. This week, it’s Nightfall by Isaac Asimov:
Matt Taibbi: Tell us about Nightfall by Isaac Asimov.
Walter Kirn: Nightfall is considered by the science fiction community, the writing community, and the reading community to be the greatest science fiction story of the mid-20th century. It was written in 1941. And when the professional science fiction writers of America voted on the best stories to be included in an anthology that was published in the, I think, the early ‘70s or the ‘60s, they ranked it number one.
It’s a very peculiar story. It’s not all that science-y in some ways. It’s about a planet which has six suns, which exists always in daylight. This planet goes for 2050 years without darkness. But it has a scriptural history of all these civilizational collapses that have taken place. And they seem to coincide with these short periods in which the planet is in total darkness due to the eclipse of every single one of its six suns.
And the story is set on the afternoon before this latest eclipse. And it has three sets of characters. There are the government scientists who have figured out that this eclipse is coming and used psychological research to predict the reaction, which they believe will be the apocalypse.
They have figured out that when this last sun goes into darkness, people will react with a terrible sense of claustrophobia and terror and will start lighting fires just to get light again and will burn the planet down, will burn down their cities. And they believe this has happened at least six times before.
So that’s the government scientists. There’s also a group of religious cultists who believe that the appearance of the stars that are going to be the result of darkness is a heavenly sign of judgment and great spiritual import.
And they’re going crazy in their way, believing that the souls of people are about to be sucked from their bodies, and they’re going to be turned into beasts. And then, you have this journalist narrator in the middle who is-
Matt Taibbi: Theremon 762
Walter Kirn: Everybody has a number in this. And this journalist isn’t sure and is somewhat skeptical of both apocalyptic scenarios - that of the cultists who think that souls are going to be destroyed, and that of the government who thinks that people are going to start lighting fires. And the government is also preparing to go into a bunker and wait out this eclipse.
That’s the setup, and you have ample suspense about what’s going to happen. And you have the promise in the story that you are going to see what happens and you do see what happens by the end of it.
Matt Taibbi: Before we get to that, I love the fact that the reporter is not a terribly likable character. Has there ever been a story where the reporter is a likable character? It’s a consistent feature of almost all fiction that the reporter is a sniveling, unlikable, changeable villain, like the guy in Die Hard.
I can’t even look at that character actor [William Atherton] anymore, but no. That’s funny. And I love the way that this story cycles through all the reasoning that these people do for predicting apocalypse, because a lot of it makes sense if you accept the assumptions that they were living under at the time.
They hypothesized a world where there’s just one sun like ours, and they talk about how easy it would be to calculate gravity in a place like that. But, of course, life would be impossible because darkness would be regular, and nobody could survive darkness.
People are like that. We often just speed over wrong assumptions to make conclusions that lead us places that are very stupid in the end. And everybody in this story is working off their own wrong impressions as they head toward a realization that nobody expects, which is really interesting.
Walter Kirn: Exactly. The government scientists, the cultists, and the journalists all have an angle on what’s coming, and they’re all captives of their own prejudices and their own special worldviews to some extent. And we see as they talk because it’s about a 20-page story, about sundown and the way in which they’re all wrong in their own way.
And it’s really a study of their prejudices and their irrationality. And that allows us to see each group objectively. The reader is in a very favored position in this story because the reader gets to see how the experts are crazy. The cultists are crazy, and the journalist is a simp and in the dark about how things actually are going to transpire. And we could use that point of view in our perspective on our own society now.
When something like the Trump indictment happens, everybody rushes to take a side. It’s time we got that Trump, or we’ve got to stand up for this guy, or whatever it might be. We really lack the ability to see the global situation, or to see the situation in the round. In other words, to see the way in which everybody’s panicking in a different way. And all the panics add up to one big mistake because we’re all involved in playing our part.
But Nightfall allows you this long view on human conflict and theorizing and so on, which shows that it’s a whole. Our mistakenness is a unity in some ways that’s composed of our different factional assumptions. And I sometimes wish that America, our society, could step back from itself and step back from the rooting interests that it has to see what we’re doing collectively.
We’re rushing, in my view, not unlike the characters in Nightfall, toward an unpredictable and perhaps terrible moment in which everyone loses faith, everyone loses perspective, everyone loses the plot, and behavior becomes awful in a way that we can’t quite envision, but we can feel in our guts.
And so, that pre-apocalyptic intuition that is fuzzy and directed at different scenarios has overtaken us in every way. And I think we do find ourselves very much in the position of these people theorizing about what’s going to happen when night finally comes.
What will the 2024 election really be like? What’s coming with Ukraine, and so on? I think it would behoove us to step back and see the way in which each faction has its own erroneous and specialized angle on an event that will affect us all.
Matt Taibbi: This story, it’s very prescient in its description of the two factions currently in America because you have the experts who searingly describe the superstitious hokum of the cultus and the primitive way that they talk, and their non-intellectual way of interpreting the universe. And then, you have the cultists who think the experts are snobs, lack faith, lack a higher belief system. And I think it’s implied, although they don’t really say that anywhere, that they lack morals. This is pretty similar to the basic division in current American society. Is that maybe an eternal division in human societies? Maybe that’s something that we see over and over again.
Walter Kirn: Between the technocrats and the wizards who think that they are in control or at least have a better picture and the people who react more intuitively and emotionally or, in some sense, superstitiously, yes. I think that is, at least in Asimov’s mind, a basic division.
Once again, remember the historical context. The story was written in 1941. What was coming in 1941? A world war, a nuclear bomb, a reordering of civilization across the globe. He was obviously writing an allegory of the coming storm. Now, Asimov was a scientific elitist. He really was. If you know anything about him as a writer and a thinker, he would’ve sided with the forces of rationality in this story.
But what’s interesting is that the story proposes this paradox. It says, “Okay. If there have been these apocalypses in the past and the world has destroyed itself, then how is it still here? How do these scriptures tell in this very impressionistic way of what will happen and predict it?” How have they even been passed on to the present if there is this cyclical conflagration on Earth, that’s the result of these predictable eclipses? How do we have still any civilization whatsoever?
And his answer is that children, blind people, and idiots keep civilization alive because, in a weird way, their insensate inability to process things allows them to go on in a way that people who are sensitive can’t. He suggests that there’s a substrate, a primitive substrate to human affairs, which keeps us going even through these huge catastrophic cycles because there’s such a dogged, blind genetic push that keeps us here.
And he attributes it to children, dumb people, and the blind in this case. And maybe, our hope as a society now with what’s coming is all the people who don’t use Twitter, don’t have phones, never read the newspaper, maybe can’t read the newspaper. Maybe, in them must we place our hope. People who don’t even know that Donald Trump is running for president.
Matt Taibbi: That’s where Orwell came out in 1984: Winston after all of his intellectualizing throughout the entire book, at the end comes around to thinking, “Well, the hope, I guess, just rests with the proles. They have some energy that’s going to prevail in this situation.” I think in this story he’s describing basically two different ways of avoiding the basic unpleasant reality of existence.
Intellectuals cook up all sorts of ways to deny the fact that they’re going to die like everybody else. They either imagine that they’re more enlightened and that they’re going to cure basic problems of humanity, maybe even death itself. That’s the theory, in Frankenstein and other stories.
Walter Kirn: They think that understanding accurately the reasons that things happen somehow relieves you of the consequences.
Matt Taibbi: You still get eaten by the alligator of life at the end of the whole thing, no matter how well you taxonomically—
Walter Kirn: But you properly classify it as a reptile, and you know exactly in which way it will digest you and what will be excreted after you are processed. And that somehow soothes the sting of being chomped on and swallowed.
Matt Taibbi: And the funny thing about it is that from a writing perspective, the downfall of the intellectual is always funnier, it seems to me… although priests too are pretty good for comic downfall.
Walter Kirn: That’s because the religious equivalent to the intellectual’s consolation that understanding somehow undercut suffering. The religious equivalent is we will make it a total drama of the cosmos when I need it. This will be the allegory of the soul’s passage through darkness to redemption or whatever.
So the intellectual reduces things to causes and tries to numb him or herself. And the religious person tries to elevate all events to absolute universal import and, therefore, escape the pain. And what does the journalist do? He just weasels around between the two of them sticking microphones in their faces and pissing on both of them with the thought that somehow being detached from any philosophy in particular is going to save him.
Matt Taibbi: Yeah, which makes him in some ways the least likable of all the characters.
Walter Kirn: Well, in this story, does he not experience the greatest terror at the end?
Matt Taibbi: Yeah. I guess he does. Yeah.
Walter Kirn: Because at least the other two factions have done something to prepare themselves intellectually and emotionally for this event. But the journalist seems to be like, “Wait, man. This is actually happening, and I’m a cowardly son of a bitch who never took a stand on anything. And whoa, it’s getting dark.”
Matt Taibbi: Right. Yeah. “I haven’t prepared myself mentally for this.” That’s some funny stuff. You and I both have some experience with apocalyptic movements. Do you want to do and talk about yours first?
Walter Kirn: So in 1975 or 1976, my family converted to Mormonism. My late father had a psychological, emotional crisis around the death of his father. And he solved it by inviting the Mormon missionaries who come knocking at all our doors at some point into the house and allowing them to sit down and teach us about God’s plan for the American family, which is how they used the couch.
And we became Mormons. I don’t want to make fun of Mormonism. A lot of my friends are believing Mormons, and I live near Utah, and I have to pass through it on my way to Los Angeles. So, I don’t want any hassles.
But we were thrust into Mormonism at a point when it was almost a Cold War apocalyptic religion. The church required, or at least advised strongly, that all members stock two years’ worth of canned goods and survival supplies in their homes. If you went over to your Mormon friend’s house and you looked behind the couch, there were cases of peaches and a lot of dried beans.
It was just something you took for granted. And Mormonism, to get into the weeds of its belief system, has some prophecies that go back to the 19th century about America hanging by a thread and being saved by some unknown but probably Mormon figure of redemption and so on.
So, we basically thought the Russians were going to strike us with nukes. We were going to fall back to our pantries. We were going to survive an apocalypse that most Americans might not, because they weren’t as well-prepared. And then, according to Mormon prophecy, we were all going to set out, this gets weird, for the prophetic future site of the great Mormon temple, Independence, Missouri, on the outskirts of Kansas City.
Matt Taibbi: Naturally.
Walter Kirn: We were going to walk there, and we were going to rebuild the kingdom of God. So that was the context in which I was 13. Okay. It was tough for a 13-year-old, but it was exciting too.
Matt Taibbi: Did you buy it, or did you pretend to buy it?
Walter Kirn: It’s hard to say. That’s the thing about belief, especially when you’re not raised in it, when it comes as a package in the middle of your development. You knew everybody else believed it, or you suspected they did, or at least a lot of them were pretending they did.
And you wanted to have a girlfriend. You wanted to go over to your friend’s house. You didn’t want to be laughed at in church. You wanted to have a role and be accepted by your neighbors, and certainly saying you believed these things was necessary. And then, you’re a teenager, so you wind each other up about all these things, And it’s pretty exciting to imagine that you might have a role at the end of the world and then re-establishing the kingdom of God. So in a comic book way, was very compelling.
But to be honest and fair to my Mormon friends who do believe, I can’t say I really did personally. But I definitely entertained the possibility that I might someday, that maybe it was my fault that I didn’t, and that I would grow and learn and come to a realization that would allow me to sincerely believe, and I wanted to. I was like David Duchovny in the X-Files. I wanted to believe, and it would’ve made things a hell of a lot easier for one thing. I wouldn’t have to lay there by myself thinking I was the doomed and damned doubter Walter Kirn at 14.
So, yeah, that apocalyptic atmosphere hung around me. But I will say that the one thing I might not have believed was that Independence, Missouri was going to be the center of the new dispensation. I might not have believed that our canned peaches would save us. But I did believe, I will say, that the world might be coming to an end.
I was fairly convinced that all the portents and signs that they were speaking to lined up with what I was seeing on the news about the Cold War, and Watergate, and everything else that was happening at home, and did point to a terrible breakdown that was coming.
But I have since learned, as a now 60-year-old man, that every two years there is – whether it’s Y2K, the Hale-Bopp Comet…
Matt Taibbi: Heaven’s Gate is one of the great stories of all time.
Walter Kirn: The Mayan calendar or whatever. There is a regularly scheduled apocalypse every 18 months in America. I hope that the rest of the world doesn’t stick to this schedule of anxiety that we have installed in our culture. Having lived through now, what? Twenty, 30 apocalypses, it’s hard to get excited about them in the way I did as a kid.
Matt Taibbi: So, I wrote a book called The Great Derangement. Part of that was based on an assignment that I had where I joined John Hagee’s Cornerstone Church in San Antonio. He’s an apocalyptic preacher, he preaches the end of the world. He’s got a very curious twist on it, which is basically it’s Christians who are rooting for Israel to prevail in a war. I forget exactly why this was. It had something to do with their interpretation of Armageddon. But the utilitarian angle behind this was that John Hagee was able to rally Christians to support Israel, and was therefore getting a lot of donations from certain kinds of people.
I joined this church, and I expected to be writing typical New-York-smart-ass-makes-fun-of-hicks-in-the-middle-of-the-country piece. And it didn’t work, because I ended up liking the people in the church, even though the stuff they believed was crazy. We had these retreats where they were training us to vomit our demons into a paper bag. It was a lot of stuff like that. But at the beginning of the experience, I remember going to church and thinking the music they were playing, “This is the worst music I’ve ever heard.”
Then after about a few months, I remember walking into church and liking it, and thinking, “This is how it happens.” It’s through familiarity, through hanging out with people in the church, belief starts to take over your body on a cellular level. They were very comfortable with the idea that the end was coming, and they were unpretentious about it, which I liked. It was interesting on that level, but the one thing I wanted to point out is because of that experience, I just see a lot of parallels in the way young people think about climate change. There’s a fatalistic, absolute certainty that this is going to happen, that permeates an entire generation. And maybe it’s true, I don’t know. But psychologically, it feels very familiar to me.
Walter Kirn: I completely agree, and I have a few thoughts on this, big thoughts. One, when I was a kid in the Mormon church in the mid-1970s in Minnesota, and for a year in Phoenix, Arizona, apocalypticism was largely the property of the right, what you might call the conservative wing of America. Though there was also left-wing apocalypticism. You had the Malthusians, the population bomb. You had a lot of ecological apocalypticism on the left, whereas the right was spiritual, or Cold War based. We were going to have a final battle with communism and/or the Savior was coming back to judge our sins. Whereas on the left, most apocalypticism had to do with the population explosion. I mean at that point, it was global cooling, the new Ice Age that was being preached back in the ‘70s.
As time has gone on, I have found that the right has grown marginally less apocalyptic, maybe as a result of having made so many bum predictions about Armageddon, while the left has become almost uniformly apocalyptic. Almost officially apocalyptic. Because it was never a policy of the Republican Party that we should avoid or do everything we can to propitiate the Christian God so we weren’t destroyed. But it is now pretty much an official platform of those on the left that climate disaster is coming, and they fell into the trap of Garner Ted Armstrong, and some of the big radio preachers of the ‘70s, in starting to predict temperature rises of a certain quotient by a certain time and having gotten all those wrong.
The left apocalypticism is reaching middle age, and then it has behind it a record of not getting things quite right, but it’s still pretty strong. That’s a weird turn of events for me. With this apocalypticism about climate has come apocalypticism about politics on the left. And Donald Trump has really been cast as the anti-Christ, and as the final bringer of total breakdown, and the destruction of society and democracy. And so structurally, I see the left as being in the position that the right was back in the ‘70s.
There’s a problem psychologically with apocalyptic apprehension, which is that you stop building. You stop thinking past a certain date line. You are playing completely to propitiate the gods and to stave off disaster, but you stop really thinking in long-term, rational, and incremental ways. And I think that’s too bad because insofar as it was valuable, the traditional progressive left thought in long spans about how we might alleviate common and historical ills, poverty, the powerlessness of the worker, how we might clean up the environment. Because environmentalism is no longer, “How do we protect species, and have clean water, and clean air?” It’s all about, “How do we avoid this thunderous, terrible, super collapse?”
I think it’s a disease of the mind, to be honest. I mean we take our eyes off the fact that every one of us is going to die individually and become concentrated on some massive collective destruction, which doesn’t come. We can be certain our individual demise is coming, but we instead concentrate on catastrophes of a collective nature that don’t ever seem to arrive. And it destabilizes people, it especially demoralizes young people, and it causes you to stop thinking in larger parts of time, and makes everything so damn urgent that you don’t even know whether to make plans. One of the popular novels of the earlier apocalyptic period was On The Beach, where the world has had a nuclear exchange, and some people are just living for the moment on a beach in the South Pacific, having sex, and doing the last things they want to do before the inevitable radioactive cloud comes over. And I don’t want society to fall prey to that syndrome, but I can see all the ingredients for it.
I mean they’ve been here for a while, and you’re right, young people regularly ... I’ve talked to 23-year-olds who are like, “I’m so old.” They say things like, “I’m so old,” or, “What’s going to happen,” or, “Why bother?” And I’m like this is the age at which you’re supposed to be psyched, man.
Matt Taibbi: Yeah, screw it.
Walter Kirn: They’re sure not saving for their retirement.
Matt Taibbi: When I was in my 20s, I was very consciously into the whole carpe diem idea, live like there’s no tomorrow, William Blake’s idea of, “Sooner murder an infant in the cradle than nurse unacted desires.” You’re only going to go around once; you might as well have as many experiences as you can. Then of course what happens is you grow up, and you realize that there is a tomorrow, and that living like there’s no tomorrow ends up having costs, and that’s what maturing is. But this political version of that, where we believe that politics is about these awesome final confrontations that are inevitably going to happen, and we don’t want to avoid them, we want to accelerate our way toward them because we are put on this earth to be warriors in this great battle. That seems to be the mentality of a lot of people who should just be having fun at the moment.
Walter Kirn: Well, the right is coming up strong now in the apocalyptic category. I’ve got to say there’s a resurgence, because I’m seeing them talk about CW2, with reference to this Trump indictment and other things. And their sense that the culture is spiraling out of control morally. CW1 sucked, more people should immerse themselves in the history of CW1 before they start tweeting about CW2, I think. Because the weaponry is much more advanced than it was the first time, and the first time was bad. I feel like in ways I’m sympathetic to the Isaac Asimov notion that stupid people, and out of touch people, and people who can’t get out on the battlefield may be our salvation.
When I grew up, there was a terrible word that they used for people who didn’t watch the news, they were apathetic. Apathy, I’m starting to feel a little nostalgia or sympathy for apathy. Maybe we could use more of it. Just the Be Apathetic and Chill Party, let’s just make sure that no matter what else happens, a few of us are still around. Can we take some of the combatants off the battlefield?
One thing in my reporting over the years about politics, I have noticed, is that political activism and political passion attracts inordinately the imbalanced human being. I went to the Reform Party convention, I remember, back when Pat Buchanan was taking up the mantle of Ross Perot, and it was this homemade party. It was meeting in Fort Worth, and around 2000. I went around the convention hall, and these are all the unaffiliated floaters of American politics. They didn’t have a home on the right or the left.
I remember I met one guy who wanted to get the nomination, and here was his platform, he wanted to teach all Americans to write screenplays, because he’d read that you could make something like $200,000 selling a screenplay to Hollywood, and if every American had $200,000 poverty would be alleviated. He obviously didn’t think ahead about the market in which 260 million screenplays suddenly hit Hollywood, and how many of those might get the $200,000 check. But that was his idea.
And then I met other people with let’s say parallel or comparable notions of how America could be saved, and I went, it’s not just that these people are mad, it’s that the political way of thinking about life is mad. That once you get up above a certain level, where you’re not thinking about your own life, what you should do next, and how you should buy your house, and you start thinking about the collective, and the history, and big things, you go nuts. I think that, to some extent, we’ve just become over politicized in every way. I just sometimes wonder if a return to apathy might not be called for, because the inflammation is at a critical level.
Matt Taibbi: We should create an apathetic political party. When I was in Russia, there was a great political party, it was called the Subtropical Russian Party. They were just funny people, and they had a flag with a little palm tree on it. Their slogan was, “Let there be bananas in the Banana Republic.” And their entire platform was that they wanted the mean temperature of Russia to be 78 degrees Fahrenheit. I forget how that worked in Celsius. But it was just this comic reaction to a very heated, angry, intense political environment, and it just seemed like it was a real relief at the time. I wonder what the American version of that would be, because obviously the whole point of that is Russia’s cold and you can’t make it warm.
Walter Kirn: Well, there was the “Rent is too damn high,” candidate in New York City, who was a joke candidate. This is a real phenomenon, we have seen a vanishing of the joke candidate in American politics. Now when I was a kid, my mom was a big, “Pat Paulsen for President,” advocate.
Walter Kirn: There was some really nervous, skinny comedian named Pat Paulsen, he was like Don Knotts on The Andy Griffith Show. He just shook with nervousness and neurotic energy, and he was a candidate who put out bumper stickers and so on. And then in Minnesota we had what appeared to be a joke candidate for governor, Jesse Ventura, who actually won. Our joke candidates now are our real candidates, it’s this weird fusion thing. We’ve got this really old guy, who’s actually President, and we’ve got this really colorful real estate developer associated with professional wrestling and beauty pageants, who’s also a presidential candidate. What room is there for joke candidates?
Matt Taibbi: Trump is a joke candidate, and Biden is the Lloyd Bridges character in Hot Shots, and yeah. How would you make a joke candidate now? I think we need an apathetic party. We’ve got to start one, I think. Are you up for that?
Walter Kirn: I am. The Mañana Party. The We’ll Get To It Later. But like you say, what could be its pet issue? I don’t know.
Matt Taibbi: Let’s ask the audience, maybe they could have ideas for a flag or something like that. Let’s see what they come up with.
Walter Kirn: It could just be the Gluten Free Party, or something like that. The Gluten Free Party. We do have Marianne Williamson, I keep forgetting. We do have her, but she seems to think that she’s a serious candidate, so I’ll give her that. The Ghost Party, the President should be a ghost. The AI Party, we should be run by an AI that is an actual machine sitting in the White House. The Resolute desk, or whatever they call it, a little screen. The Max Headroom Party.
Matt Taibbi: The 5’8” party. Everybody should be 5’8
Walter Kirn: The Height Equity Party.
Matt Taibbi: I like that.
Walter Kirn: I’ll agree to go up an inch if you’ll come down an inch.
Matt Taibbi: Excellent. All right, well a lot of stuff this week. Thanks everybody, for tuning in, and hope you enjoyed Nightfall.
Walter Kirn: See you soon.