Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Gods Themselves

The Gods Themselves
© 1972 Isaac Asimov
288 pages

"Against human stupidity, the gods themselves contend in vain." - Friedrich Schiller

In a small university office, something wondrous has been discovered: an isotope of Plutonium which cannot possibly remain stable according to the laws of known physics. Yet there it sits upon Dr. Hallam's desk, quiet as you like. The search for the isotope's origins creates a powerful new energy source for humanity, one which is effectively inexhaustible and utterly efficient. But nothing comes without a price, and one scientist realizes to his horror that the price of humanity's bounty may be the solar system itself.  The Gods Themselves is a story told in three parts: as two men on Earth and the Moon attempt to find someway of convincing the civilization of Earth to save itself, in another universe (the origin of that isotope) a dissident alien rails against her own people's attempt to save itself -- an attempt which is dependent on Earth's destruction.

The Gods Themselves is one of Asimov's more unconventional works, for the good doctor rarely used aliens in his stories. This may be the readers' loss, for the alien race he invents for The Gods Themselves is far from being a species of "rubber forehead" aliens with strange names. They are creatures far different from us, with three genders and bodies not quite so bound as ours. Wrapping my head around their society took a few pages, but once I'd gotten a handle on the genders I was hooked. Despite their differences, they remain sympathetic-- except for their dispassionate decision to destroy Earth's solar system to ensure their survival. Asimov's world-building on the Moon is also worth noting: it seems to be a popular location for him, as he used it in The Positronic Man and more than a few short stories.  The Gods Themselves is also a 'harder' kind of science fiction than Asimov's other works (like Empire and Robots):  the first third of the novel takes place almost entirely in the laboratory, where atomic chemistry dominates the dialogue.

The essential source of tension in the novel is human short-sightedness: as one character explains to the others,  when people are forced to realize their actions have destructive consequences, we seek to counter the consequences instead of ceasing the actions. Because our human heroes can't overcome human stupidity in this regard, they are forced to find a scientific solution to the problem at hand. I didn't know beforehand if this novel is intended to be set in the same storytelling universe as the Robots, Empire, and Foundation novels, so whether the characters would emerge victorious or go down fighting remained up in the air until the final chapter.

Definitely one of Asimov's more interesting works:  dramatic tension is maintained nicely, surviving even an interesting sidetrack to explore Asimov's alien culture. The most sympathetic character in the novel is an alien, actually: most of the humans are boors, though humanity is redeemed by two characters in the ending section. It remains to be seen if we will redeem ourselves, for the same weakness of Asimov's humans is present today: instead of throwing ourselves into solutions to eliminate our dependence on fossil fuels, we insist on maintaining them for as long as possible, and so invite disaster.



  1. I read this years ago and remember two things about it - if it's this book I'm thinking of.

    A slope that goes down hill both ways

    Either extracting energy or dumping waste energy into another universe not caring what damage it does to the people already living there.

    Or am I chanelling something else?

  2. Your memory serves you well: the leading proponent of the energy source, the Electron Pump, maintains that the ability to exchange material between the universe makes creating energy for both sides incredibly easy -- a downhill slope on two ways. The rebel scientist points out that energy is simply being "equalized" between the two universes, and eventually that will lead to the sun going kablooey.

    They solve the problem by tapping into another universe, so the corruption of laws by one is corrected by the influence of laws in another. The third universe is empty, so there's no harm done.

  3. sc said: The third universe is empty, so there's no harm done.

    Of course it's interesting how they would *know* that an entire Universe is 'empty' - or is that just another example of human arrogance?

  4. It seems like a reasonable assumption given that in that universe, all physical matter exists in a great, hyperdense body -- a 'cosmic egg'.

    Though, come to think of it, I'm not sure how they figured that out!


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