I remember reading a short sci-fi story, perhaps 50 pages or so long, whose name I don't recall.

The details of the story are:

  • It is about a world with multiple suns that keep the planet in perpetual light.
  • When they're later eclipsed (by another planet?) from all their suns, they all go mad from the darkness and burn the city to the ground.
  • I remember them making a big point about millions of stars being visible in the darkness
  • There are a lot of references to gravitational theory
  • And there was something about a war between astronomers and a religion
  • I also remember that the people had quite odd names, too, but I can't remember what specifically was odd about them.

Any ideas what this was? I'd very much like to read it again.

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    A classic, I am surprised there are no questions for this until now. – Raidri supports Monica Jun 16 '14 at 12:23
  • I'm just ashamed of myself for not realising it was an Asimov story straight away. I have the book of his entire works on my shelf at home, and have read many of them numerous times, so should have recognised it immediately. – Polynomial Jun 16 '14 at 12:25
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    It's a good rule of thumb that if the short story you are looking for has a hard science theme, and wasn't written recently, it's always worth checking the list of Asimov stories. – DJClayworth Jun 16 '14 at 17:15
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    "I have the book of his entire works"? If a collection of his entire works existed, it would span plenty of books. – Ubik Jun 16 '14 at 17:20
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    @Ubik: Polynomial is probably talking about "The Complete Stories". Doubleday gave up on that effort after the 2nd volume, though. – Simon Jun 16 '14 at 18:01

That would be "Nightfall" by Isaac Asimov (publication history).

Their planet has multiple suns, and because of the complex interactions between them, they've only recently discovered the "Theory of Universal Gravitation". Since then, they've been able to calculate that an eclipse occurs every two thousand and forty-nine years. That is the only time when it gets dark and the stars are visible.

There is a cult that predicts a time of chaos comes about every two thousand and fifty years, when the sun "enters a cave", when people go mad from the stars and destroy their own civilization.

On a world that's always light, darkness — even a room that's darkened for a couple of minutes — is very stress inducing. That combined with the millions of stars visible suddenly and for the first time (it's pointed out in the story that they're in the middle of the Milky Way, not on an outer arm, like we are) and the realisation that the universe is so much bigger than they knew, is what drives most people insane.

A text can be found here, although I'm not sure as to the legality of that.

Asimov and Robert Silverberg expanded the short story into a novel by the same title.

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    Yes, that's exactly it! Really annoyed at myself for not immediately remembering it as an Asimov story. I have the full book of his works at home, so I'll pull it out and have a read tonight. – Polynomial Jun 16 '14 at 12:08
  • BTW, the movie really sucks. Skip it and watch reruns of, well, anything instead. – Carl Witthoft Jun 17 '14 at 14:13

As the other answer says it's an Asimov short story called Nightfall. I've read it in a collection by the same name "Nightfall and other stories" http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nightfall_and_Other_Stories

The twist ending is not quite as simple as it drives people insane. From what I remember essentially they become desperate for light, any light, and end up burning their whole civilization to the ground to create that light.

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    This answer does not add anything not already present in the existing answer. – James Jenkins Jun 16 '14 at 14:21
  • @JamesJenkins The name of the book that the short story is found in is not relevant? The reason they burnt their city down isn't relevant? – Tim B Jun 16 '14 at 14:29
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  • This answer is actually legitimate -- the story originally appeared as a short story in this collection. It was later expanded into a novel of its own and published under the title "Nightfall". – Ian Clelland Jun 16 '14 at 15:56
  • @user14111, Wikipedia did the counting for me, but now you have posted the isfdb link so everything is good. – James Jenkins Jun 16 '14 at 18:13

This was also the plot of the Van Diesel movie Pitch Black which starred, somewhat incongruently, Judie Dench. Aliens from the id (or some such techno babble) eat people's brains when darkness falls every 400 years.

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    I thought that the plot of Pitch Black wasn't about people being driven to madness, but rather subterranean aliens which couldn't handle the sun. Even then, I seem to remember them only being a plot device for impending danger, ancillary to the main theme of Riddick's escape from the supermax prison. – Polynomial Jun 16 '14 at 16:21
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    Pitch Black has no references to gravitational theory, the names aren't all that strange, there's no one going crazy when the eclipse occurs (unless alien creatures going on a feed and breed binge counts), there were no wars of religion, no one's city was burned to the ground as a result... So basically the similarity stops after multiple suns and a period of eclipse. Also, I remember the aliens eating pretty much any flesh they could find...not just brains. – David Wilkins Jun 17 '14 at 15:11
  • Oh, nice... IIRC Judi Dench didn't star in Pitch Black but did so in the sequel (The Chronicles of Riddick). Also, "aliens from the id" might rather be a reference to "Forbidden Planet" - but maybe someone can shed more light on this reference? Anyway, more of these puzzles please :-) – oliver Jun 17 '14 at 15:34
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    And Judie Dench didn't appear in it. She did appear "The Chronicles of Riddick" (the sequel). Get your movies straight. – Tonny Jun 17 '14 at 15:36
  • @oliver You just beat me to it. Didn't see your comment until after I posted mine. – Tonny Jun 17 '14 at 15:36

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