RogerBW's Blog

The Gods Themselves, Isaac Asimov 07 April 2017

1972 Hugo- and Nebula-award-winning science fiction. The Electron Pump has brought limitless free energy to Earth, by exchanging matter with a parallel universe where the physical laws differ. But one or two people think there might be a worm in this apple.

There are several books here, and not just the three sections into which the narrative is divided (its first publication was as separate novellas). Part of it is a hard-SF story: how could you have such an isotope as Plutonium-186, and what would happen to it if you did? Answer, there's a parallel universe where the strong nuclear force is stronger: protons are more easily held together, so a stable nucleus of a heavy element requires fewer neutrons than here. So if matter can be shifted from one to the other, it will decompose into its this-universe form, releasing energy.

The first part of the narrative is the account of the discovery of this, with lots of scientific bitchiness as the fellow who got all the credit was the one who carefully set himself up to do so, rather than the smarter people who deserved it. Yeah, well, welcome to reality, Isaac; working human social systems is a skill. When it starts to appear, some years later, that there might be danger in the industrial-scale use of this process (the stronger nuclear force leaks over to some extent, and maybe the sun will go bang), the two people who think that this is a plausible problem are shocked, shocked that the entire world won't immediately give up its free energy just because these smart guys think there might possibly be a danger – not, as they admit, that they've got any actual evidence of anything. Obviously everyone else must be really stupid.

Rumour has it that Asimov received complaints that his books didn't have aliens or sex in them, so he wrote the middle section to satisfy both sets of critics at once. The beings in the parallel universe form triads, and gender essentialism is paramount: the left "Rationals" think, the mid "Emotionals" are intuitive, and the right "Parentals" care only about having and raising children. While, to be fair to Asimov, one Emotional does manage to some extent to break free of this, she does end up being the Exceptional Woman who makes the others look even worse:

He had passed a cluster of Emotionals, sunning themselves[...]. They had tittered at the rare sight of a Rational moving in the vicinity of an Emotional cluster and had thinned in mass-provocation, with no thought among the foolish lot of them but to advertise the fact that they were Emotionals.

For such theoretically alien beings, they end up working an awful lot like stereotypical 1950s American humans; they even have an analogue of masturbation, which of course is considered "dirty". There's no real conclusion to this section, except that shutting down the Pump won't happen on this side either.

The final part happens in a lunar settlement, where one of those misunderstood researchers has migrated to try to work out a solution to the Pump problem. The colony is reasonably sensibly worked out, in an age before most writers bothered: water rationing, extensive exercise to prevent degeneration, free love, and (since it's a shirtsleeve environment everywhere) casual nudity. Though it's only described for the women, of course. The story skips over key moments, and is marred by yet more pettiness.

It's a curiously leaden narration of what should be a lightweight novel of ideas, of how to tell people things that they don't want to hear. The Sun might explode tomorrow! But there's never any sense of urgency, of things moving quickly. The middle section is probably the best written, for all it's more mired in its time than it really should have been, and has the most sense of wonder. I don't see this ever becoming a favourite of mine, but I suspect that's not what Asimov was trying for. This was written after Sputnik had killed Asimov's enthusiasm for writing SF, and at times it seems like a slog, but even so there are things well worth reading here.

Reread for Neil Bowers' Hugo-Nebula Joint Winners Reread.

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  1. Posted by Michael Cule at 11:42am on 07 April 2017

    72 was a long time after Sputnik Roger... Admittedly, Asimov spent most of the intervening time writing non-fiction, short stories of deduction and whatever else took his fancy. He was living off the capital of his SF reputation until he got offered enough money to do the late follow ups to the FOUNDATION series and the Robot stories. (Now combined into one unlikely time line!)

    And I recall enjoying THE GODS THEMSELVES at the time which goes to show that doing an Oxford degree in English Language and Literature won't necessarily impact one's basic low and easily satisfied tastes.

    And now you've reminded me of it, I find the book's epigraph to suit my current 'grumpy old man against the folly of the world' persona:

    "Against Stupidity, The Gods Themselves, Contend in Vain."

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 11:47am on 07 April 2017

    Yes; Sputnik was what destroyed Asimov's enthusiasm for SF (he felt he'd have to write about dreary old chemical rockets and going to the moon), and he didn't really recover it until the 1980s with Foundation's Edge. (Whether that was a good thing is a debate for another time. I met the Robots stories with The Robots of Dawn – a great thick book with endless meditations on toilet design – and nearly didn't go back.)

  3. Posted by John Dallman at 10:52am on 08 April 2017

    I think I read this in '74 or so - one of the first books I sought out when newly published in UK paperback. It was disappointing then, although there were good bits.

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