First published in the September 1941 edition of Astounding Science Fiction, Nightfall is widely considered Isaac Asimov's first literary success. As Isaac Asimov recalls in the preface of his short anthology Nightfall and Other Stories, "The writing of 'Nightfall' was a watershed in my professional career ... I was suddenly taken seriously and the world of science fiction became aware that I existed. As the years passed, in fact, it became evident that I had written a 'classic'." Since then Nightfall has been reproduced in numerous anthologies, most notably: Nightfall and Other Stories; The Best of Isaac Asimov; The Edge Of Tomorrow; Other Worlds of Isaac Asimov; The Asimov Chronicles; The Complete Stories, Volume 1. Nightfall was later expanded into a novel by Robert Silverberg.
In the spirit of noding your own homework, what follows is a brief summary (aka, spoiler) and a paragraph from an assignment. Page numbers are from Nightfall and Other Stories.
Nightfall tells the story of an alien civilization periodically confronted with a devastating natural phenomenon. Their planet, Kalgash, is perpetually illuminated by six suns of varying intensity. However, once in two thousand years a total eclipse of all suns darkens the world for a few hours. Having never known night, the planets inhabitants collapse psychologically, setting fire to their civilization in a desperate attempt to illuminate their world. And so every two thousand years the cycle of civilization on Kalgash is refreshed by a "human" reaction to a natural phenomenon. However, out of this cycle a few inhabitants survive, imparting to the next generation an embellished story of a great darkness accompanied by demonic "stars" which steal the souls of men and reduce them to barbaric animals. The narration of Nightfall occurs shortly before another cyclic eclipse. The alien civilization has once again rebuilt itself, developed science loosely comparable to the Newtonian era, and has already begun to seriously doubt the fantastic claims of the "Cultists", who persistently proclaim the coming of the "stars" and the end of their civilization. Having developed a theory of gravity, an elite group of scientists propose a natural cause for the Cultist claims and deduce an explanation for the cyclic nature of their civilization as evident in archeological findings. Confronted with the possibility that the Cultist prediction of doom may have grounding in a natural phenomenon, the scientists set about to ensure that the next "cycle" will not be the victim of uneducated speculation following the eclipse, but rather informed by the knowledge accumulated in the current cycle so that they may adequately prepare themselves for the great darkness.
The conflict that ensues is one of super-naturalists against rational naturalists. Unwilling to accept a logical explanation for their testament, the Cultists accuse the scientists of corrupting their "truth". Through the comment of one Cultist, Asimov eloquently summarizes the system of academically elucidating religion and, by doing so, reducing it to myth: "For your pretended explanation backed our beliefs, and at the same time removed all necessity for them. You made of the Darkness and of the Stars a natural phenomenon and removed all its real significance. That was blasphemy." (p. 19) While the civilization in Nightfall stands on the brink of monotonous repetition, the scientists offer the only hope of ending the cycle and ensuring true progresses and the religious present a threat to the achievement of such progress. Asimov's larger comment is this: that humanity's salvation, salvation comparable to that sought by religions the world over, in fact lies in the hands of the educated rationalistic scientists. This is a prime example of Asimov's humanistic sentiment: the belief that the fait of humanity lies in human hands; that our civilization is not consigned to the whims of supernatural powers. Another important view of religion can be extracted from Nightfall. Religion, in Asimov's opinion, is born of dependence on uneducated and unreliable speculation. Asimov makes an attack on the progenitors of religion through the character of a scientist in Nightfall: with regard to the Cultists "Book of Revelations", an obvious analogy to the Bibles of every religion, the scientist says, "Naturally, the book was based, in the first place, on the testimony of those least qualified to serve as historians; that is, children and morons; and was probably edited and re-edited through the cycles." (p. 25) The story also alludes to the argument that linguistic mistranslation has corrupted much of the Biblical account, a major thesis in Asimov's later works of non-fiction pertaining to the development of the Bible.
The story itself was inspired by an essay of Ralph Waldo Emerson, and the novelization begins with an excerpt from this essay:
"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?"
- Nature, Ralph Waldo Emerson
Nightfall and Other Stories. Garden City, New York. Doubleday Science Fiction.