Nightfall and Night Lamp

Science Fiction is a particularly adroit tool for examining human nature, more adroit than, say, the allegedly realistic modern novel, because it allows the author to introduce the changes society is likely to suffer as various technologies, speculative or fantastic to us now, make their advent on Earth. Only the least thoughtful of science fiction writers can introduce such staples of the genre as the superhuman, the robotic or artificial intelligence, the non-human alien, and not lay bare his own foundational assumptions about what it means to be human.

Such unthoughtful science fiction writers will treat, for example, robots merely as comedy relief characters, with all the same foibles and follies as a Bob Hope. The comedy-bot might be shown quaking at the threat of having an apelike alien rip his arms off if he fails to throw a game of holographic chess, but a thoughtful science fiction fan might wonder why a machine would fear the loss of a limb any more than an automobile would fear a tire change. The more thoughtful science fiction fan might wonder why the robot was programmed by his software designer to be craven. An even more thoughtful science fiction fan might conclude that the robot manufacturers and owners receive a cheap yet hollow pleasure from bullying servants designed to cringe. (The most thoughtful science fiction fan of all will notice that the robot being threatened is shaped like a Hoover vacuum cleaner, and has no arms to rip off in the first place.)

Because science fiction allows the extraterrestrial or artificial human or superhuman onstage, it more easily asks and answers the question what it means to be a man, because a contrast between human and nonhuman forces the question to the fore.  The science fiction writer almost has no choice but to betray his view of human nature.  The thoughtful science fiction writer makes it even more clear.

In this essay, let me discuss two of the more thoughtful, Isaac Asimov and Jack Vance.  The contrast is informative, since Asimov can aptly be taken to represent the views of John W. Campbell Jr., whose ANALOG was one of the most influential magazines in the genre; Jack Vance along with Cordwainer Smith appeared in the pages of GALAXY magazine under the editorial hand of Frederick Pohl, and owes more to the fantasies of Clarke Ashton Smith or Lord Dunsany than to the technophilia of Gernsbeck or can-do optimism of Campbell.

If Isaac Asimov champions the world view common to ‘Hard SF’, Jack Vance can serve if unwillingly as the champion of the world view of ‘Soft SF’, and, contrary to the terminology, I propose to show that Soft SF is more realistic than Hard, at least as far as human characters are concerned.

I have never been convinced of the view of human nature which comes across as the central conceit of Isaac Asimov’s novels and stories. Asimov’s CAVES OF STEEL proposes that living in overpopulated warrens would make men agoraphobic; in THE NAKED SUN, he proposes likewise that living in robot-run hermitages would make men phobic of being in the same room with another human being. The most famous of these is ‘Nightfall’ were men raised in a world whose many suns shed eternal sunshine go mad at the first dusk in a thousand years.

On the other hand, I have heard reviewers and critics and commentators say, either with a chortle of delight or with a moue of scorn, that the societies depicted in Jack Vance tales, such as NIGHT LAMP or EMPHYRIO or CITY OF THE CHASCH, are overcomplicated, delicate, ridiculous, as fantastical as a Faberge Egg—and I have heard it so frequently, that I cannot bring a single contrary comment to mind.  The most famous of these is ‘The Last Castle’ which concerns a society of aristocrats so haughty and settled in their ways that they cannot bring themselves, even at the expense of their own survival, to do the necessary, sober, and dirty work of defending themselves from a revolt among their slave-creatures.

It has always struck me that Jack Vance’s fantastic societies, and the odd ways of the odd men of the odd worlds he has shown us, are not any more fabulous or unusual than real tribes and nations and civilizations which have lived here on Earth, and that his view of man is, at the root, realistic to the point of cynicism. Only the vocabulary he uses to express it is fantastical, and this is the root of his humor, acrid and dry as it is. Jack Vance has mastered the technique of having his characters utter the most selfish and vicious of sentiments in tones of lofty erudition.

It has always struck me that Isaac Asimov is portraying a view of man so mechanically puppet-like and so unrealistic as to be little more than an intellectual exercise. His human beings operate according to simple and unbreakable laws, as obvious and mechanical as his famous Three Laws of Robotics.

There is a famous story, at least, famous among science fiction readers, that Isaac Asimov’s ‘Nightfall’ , one of the most often reprinted short stories in SF, had it origin this way: According to Asimov, John W Campbell Jr prompted Asimov to write the story after discussing a Ralph Waldo Emerson quote:

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 which had been shown!

Campbell’s contrariwise opinion was: “I think men would go mad.”

And the rest is history. Asimov did as credible job with the idea, and added or invented as much scientific sounding nonsense as he needed to make Campbell’s ridiculous conceit seem sound. The short story is well constructed, even masterful, as the various scientists begin to uncover an appalling truth about their civilization on a world in a multiple star system that has never known night. By the time the gripping final paragraphs arrive, the spell is complete, and many a reader, even years later, is convinced that people actually would go mad at their first sight of stars.

Of course the conceit is ridiculous and is meant to be. Campbell was being a contrarian, and he meant to be.

Campbell is not just twisting the nose of Emerson or biting his thumb at the divine hand who designed the stars. The whole point of good SF is to create that sensation which Copernicus must have felt when he realized that the Ptolemaic model was wrong, and that the stable earth was spinning and careening around a heliocentric solar system, or the sensation many readers still feel reading Einstein for the first time: a paradigm shift.

Campbell’s paradigm shift was the opinion of Freud and BF Skinner and other gentlemen sometimes called scientists, whose speculations in recent years have finally begin to come into well deserved derision, namely, that man is merely a bag of chemicals whose contents are programmed by heredity and environment.

By this modern if not postmodern theory, there is no reason why the stars look sublime to us. It is an accident of genetics, or a blind by-product of cultural or natural forces, or arbitrary. The theory is, if you change the environment, such as to place man on a world with no nightfall, the stars if seen once each thousand years would be as horrific to them as the rising the cryptical and primordial R’Lyeh one each thousand years is to us.

But, of course, men in real life don’t act this way. When Leeuwenhoek first looked in a microscope and discovered that tiny animalcules, too small to see, swarmed and multiplied in every drop of water, every grain of sand, he did not go gloriously mad, and rage through the rainstorm screaming to his neighbors that the living creatures were everywhere, in everything. When Cardinal Bellarmine in a famous (and utterly fictional) event, refused to look through the telescope of Galileo, it was not because Galileo, seeing the four satellites of Jupiter, realized that the skies were not the comfortable perfect spheres of Ptolemy, but instead were vastnesses filled with thronging bodies, asteroids and alien earths. Galileo went shrieking and gibbering from house to house, warning that the skies were horrific voids, and Cardinal Bellarmine, wisely avoiding the sanity-shattering truth, recoiled in terror from the telescope. That is exactly what never happened.

In both cases, men were fascinated by the intricacy, glory and beauty of creation, revealed to their awe inspired eyes by science. The men of Venus would feel the same way when the clouds parted, or the men of Asimov’s fictional world whose nightfall was only once in a thousand years. Despite what you may have heard about the Renaissance Church, the Vatican continued to support the astronomical sciences before and during and after Galileo, and does so to this day.

Now, one might object that the natives of Asimov’s fictional world of Lagash were not human beings but aliens, and therefore they well might have the quirk of psychology aforementioned. Maybe so, but if so, the tale lacks all emotional impact, and means as little to us as a tale of some beach-dwelling aliens on a world with a dozen large moons, who once in a thousand years see the tides go out, and, upon viewing the shipwrecks and sunken cities and beached whales and coral stands of the sea-bottom, due to their psychopathological fear of sea-mud, all go suddenly mad.

We earthmen think the stars are sublime, almost too beautiful to be described. That is a fact of human nature. ‘Nightfall’ only has that Copernican sense of disorienting paradigm shift if we agree with the unspoken premise that we earthmen think the stars are sublime because and only because of our environment.

Asimov wrote a short story along similar lines to ‘Nightfall’ called ‘Strikebreaker’ , in which a visitor from Earth to an asteroid colony Elsevere discovers that the family in charge of the waste recycling has gone on strike, which threatens the ecology and the life support of the colony. The visitor understands that the recycling officer and his family are shunned, not permitted physical contact with any other colonist due to the irrational custom of the colonists. The officer is on strike to overturn this cruel law. Nonetheless, the visitor descends into the forbidden recycling area, operates the controls, recycles the sewage, and saves the colony. In a grotesque display of ingratitude, the colonials inform him by message that he must exile himself forthwith without seeing or touching anyone else, since he is now untouchable and ritually unclean.

Asimov himself, in an introduction to this tale that he penned for an anthology, wonders why this story dropped without a ripple into the public readership when ‘Nightfall’ had made such a splash. My own theory is that ‘Strikebreaker’ lacks the central element of the vertigo of Copernicus which is the emotional core of ‘Nightfall’ : the message that the beauty of the stars is merely an arbitrary preference, like driving on the right rather than the left side of the highway, and would be horror rather than sublimity when seen through other eyes. By way of contrast, ‘Strikebreaker’ has nothing like that. The prejudice against the sewer worker is nothing extraordinary, since it is modeled on the rules against the Dalits or Untouchables of India, and, more to the point, and more offensively to American tastes, the prejudice wins and the visitor from Earth is merely a chump.

But please note that, as in other Asimov stories, the prejudice in ‘Strikebreaker’ is treated in a mechanical fashion, as if it were one of the Three Laws of Robotics. The visitor from Earth is not a member of the shunned caste of waste workers, and has formed no human relationships, no friendship, and no romance, and no guest-host relationship any one of which would create a natural conflict with the carrying out of the rule, nor is he extended any professional courtesy due to his status, nor is there any concern for any reaction, retaliation, or souring of the relations between Earth and the colony. It is simply a given, as bland and simple as a clue in a logic puzzle: anyone who operates the sewer controls is shunned. End of story.

The story is clever but shallow, like most stories of its type. The characters are simply machines, and any prejudices implanted by their environment are part of their programming. No one from the colony questions the wisdom of the bias against untouchables any more than any Asimovian robot ever questions the wisdom of their prime directive against harming human beings. Robots simply go insane when presented with simple moral choices, such as whether it is allowable to amputate a man’s arm to save his life, or shoot a sniper before he shoots, or even arrest a drunk.

NAKED SUN and CAVES OF STEEL and other tales of Asimov have a similar mechanical view of human nature. Standards and norms and the definition of sanity (so runs this view) are all the product of environment. Change the environment, and human nature changes.

Ironically, the Asimovian attitude of mankind portrays man as particularly unsuited for scientific endeavors. If sanity is a by-product of environment, to land Man on the Moon or float him in freefall is paramount to blasting his sanity. All colonists of alien worlds would be mad things to us. This is hardly an argument for space exploration.

Let us contrast this with Jack Vance, whose societies, at first blush, seem much more baroque and rococo, too intricate and absurd to exist.

Here is Mr. Vance’s account of the origin of his Nebula Award winning ‘The Last Castle’, taken from the preface to that tale in BEST OF JACK VANCE:

The germ of this story was contained in an article dealing with Japanese social interactions. As is well known, Japanese society is highly formalized—much more thoroughly so in the past than during the relatively egalitarian times since the last war.

During the nineteenth century, when a samurai deigned to converse with a person of lower rank, each used markedly different vocabularies, with honorifics precisely calculated to the difference in status. When the person of lower degree discussed the samurai’s activities or intentions, he used a special convention. Never would he pose a simple question such as: “Will your lordship go boar-hunting tomorrow?” This would impute to his lordship a coarse and undignified fervor, a sweating, earnest, lip-licking zeal, which his lordship would have found offensively below his dignity. Instead the underling might ask: “Will your lordship tomorrow amuse himself by trifling at the hunting of a boar?”

In short, the aristocrat was conceded sensibilities of such exquisite nicety, competences of such awful grandeur, that he need only toy with all ordinary activities, in a mood of whimsy or caprice, in order to achieve dazzling successes.

So, “The Last Castle” concerns a society of somewhat similar folk, and examines their behavior when the society is subjected to great stress.

We will see the same stratified and over-refined society again in such works as ‘The Moon Moth’ and NIGHT LAMP.

What is interesting, if not alarming, about reading of such societies, civilizations where form counts for more than content, where practical matters of life and death are subordinated to ritualized or stereotyped responses or ceremony, is that such portrayals are not unrealistic. One need only crack open a history book to read of periods of decay and collapse, or unfold a newspaper to see the warning signs of similar corruption in the current world.

Now, not every Jack Vance story takes place in the midst of polities ossified to the point of collapse. The tale NIGHT LAMP, one of his later novels, does indeed end on a world of antiquated aristocrats living in somnolent splendor on a world outside the galaxy, so that the blazing spiral of the Milky Way shines down on their untended arbors and empty mansions in an otherwise starless sky; but it begins on a world of solidly middle-class sentiment, but whose obsession with microscopically nuanced distinctions of elevation between rival social clubs leads to brutality.

The point here is that the natural human tendency for hierarchy and subordination will not be abolished by the presence of technical competence. It is common feature of stories in the tradition of Campbell to assume that scientific progress equates to social enlightenment or egalitarianism. Vancean stories make no such unrealistic assumption.

You see, dear reader, the Vancean assumption is the opposite of the Asimovian. The assumption is this: Despite the changes of technology and environment and culture, human nature will not change.

Allow me by way of illustration to pull a single paragraph, curiously memorable, out the voluminous work of Jack Vance to make my point.

The book CITY OF THE CHASCH concerns one Adam Reith, stranded on the far world Tschai orbiting Carina 4269 after his space vessel is shot down by missiles issuing from an unknown source. Here he finds a world inhabited by four technologically sophisticated but inhuman species, each in continual hostility with the other three, and each of which has bred and mutated human beings as servant races, and humans have adopted, insofar as they can, the outlook and psychology of the aliens. The plains and steppes and islands of Tschai are occupied with various independent cities and tribes of men who exist somewhere between the Bronze Age to Victorian Age levels of technology, but no advance beyond early railways or simple radio is permitted by the space-travelling aliens.  Hence we have a planetary romance of the Edgar Rice Burrough style, but with a more reasonable conceit than most for having high tech energy weapons alongside rapiers and cutlasses, or having galleons and cogs and caravels plying the winedark sea beneath the silent antigravity platforms of air-rafts and stratospheric craft.

The peculiar genius of Jack Vance is showing servant-races of man, cruelly adapted to the purposes of their nonhuman masters, and reacting with the typical human psychological trick of making their own subservience a matter of ceremony, cult, and cant. The Chaschmen, for example, despite the physiological improbability of the event, regard themselves as the larval stage of the Chasch, and wear false craniums to better to resemble their thickset and pangolin-scaled alien masters. The Chasch, to better aid the humans in the convenient self-deception, plant their eggs in the corpses of newly dead human slaves, and claim to be the reincarnations or evolutions of each specific dead man. (The Dirdirmen have a different myth to explain their subservience to the Dirdir, claiming the two species to have evolved from the two halves of a primal egg on the Dirdir homeworld of Sibol; the Wankhmen may have a more clear-eyed view of their own circumstance.)

In this scene, Adam Reith has disguised himself as a Chaschman, and enters their city to reconnoiter. When he is discovered, he desperately eludes pursuit, and while seeking escape through the humbler quarters of the wield alien metropolis, chances upon the following:

His attention was attracted by a tavern in the basement of a tall building. From the low windows came flickering red and yellow light, hoarse conversation, an occasional gust of bellowing laughter. Three Chaschmen came lurching forth; Reith turned his back and looked through the window down into a murky taproom, lit by firelight and the ubiquitous yellow lamps. A dozen Chaschmen, faces pinched and twisted under the grotesque false crania, sat hunched over stone pots of liquor, exchanging lewd banter with a small group of Chaschwomen. These wore gowns of black and green; bits of tinsel and ribbon bedizened their false scalps; their pug-noses were painted bright red. A dismal scene, thought Reith; still, it pointed up the essential humanity of the Chaschmen. Here were the universal ingredients of celebration: invigorating drink, gay women, camaraderie.

There is simply nothing parallel to this in anything in Isaac Asimov that I have read, and I have all of his published science fiction works. Asimov shows no twinge of awareness that the claustrophobic human beings of CAVES OF STEEL nor the hermetically isolated hermits of THE NAKED SUN would quaff gin and rum toddy in their hours of relaxation, or seek the company of fair coquettes, or play the lute, or dream great dreams, even if those dreams are shaped by the psychoses of their insane societies.

Again, contrast is key. Isaac Asimov more than other Hard SF authors regarded mankind as a machine open to a technical fix. It is telling that the peoples of his worlds of Lagash and Elsevere talk and act like 1950 middle class Americans, except for the one change in their psychology caused by the one crucial counterfactual which forms the hook of the story. There the contrast is used for the opposite purpose and drives toward the opposite result as in a Vance yarn: against the bland off-white hue of a culture no different from those of the readers of the time, the one jarring stroke of the social insanity or social inanity gleams like a comet.

Jack Vance paints vivid landscapes of ornate and odd civilizations, with customs as strange to us as those of Tibet, and whether he means to or not, shows the essential similarity of human nature across cultural divides. To be sure, Vance is a master of the fine and ancient art of exaggeration, and the dry drollery of such exaggeration is part of the appeal. The Brahmins of Boston live in rigid conformity to artificial customs, as those of India, but none so rigid and so artificial as those of the worlds of NIGHT LAMP and ‘The Last Castle’.

But the art of fiction is the art of exaggeration. If you want to read carefully balanced accounts giving each side due proportion, then read a newspaper (preferably an old-time newspaper from the days before newspapers became addicted to exaggeration and hence became fictional themselves). Exaggeration is unrealistic, but it is not unreal.

It is to be noted that Jack Vancean heroes are often understated, even to the point of being laconic. Against the multicolored landscape and roaring spectacle of strange or eerie absurdity, the wry but competent Vancean hero does his work without drawing attention to himself. Rarely does the protagonist voice or advance philosophy or world view alien to that of his readers, or, if he does, he will preach pragmatism, this-worldiness, a desire to avoid excess.

For my taste, the ordinary man in an extraordinary circumstance is the very definition of adventure and romance.

The concept that ordinary men are as they are, and ordinary virtues a common man is called upon to exhibit in extraordinary times, merely because they were so programmed by the arbitrary or unintentional mechanics of their environment is the very definition of the unadventurous and unromantic.

Aside from the initial sugar-rush of that vertigo of Copernicus, the tale the tells men that they are machines, all their adventures and romances mere illusion and folly, all their deepest beliefs absurd, is a tale that holds no drama, offers no insight, attracts no fascination, rewards no rereading, drains joy, strangles laughter, and gathers darkness.

One can imagine a young man first tasting deeply of the wine of poetry reading the words of Emerson which opened this essay, and walking out of doors at night in some place far from the lights and noise of the city, gazing at the dark high dome of the stars with fresh awe and an awakened sense of spirit, and the greatness of the architect who placed them there, suns mightier than our own, immensely far away, numberless, bright, almost appalling in their transcendent beauty.Such a man could stare at the sky for a lifetime, and still not see all there was.

One can likewise imagine a young man first reading this tale by Isaac Asimov, looking up at the stars he once thought divinely beautiful, and seeing neither hope nor meaning in them, merely something which, if some twist of matter in his brain had been connected by blind change to other molecules, would drive him mad. There would nothing further for him to see.

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