The Gods Themselves
by Isaac Asimov
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Isaac Asimov's The Gods Themselves won both the Hugo and Nebula for 1972, but I don't think it deserved it. I had read it before, although I can't recall exactly when. I may have gotten it that year from SFBC, but my current paperback copy is the 22nd printing. If memory serves, I liked it more the first time, which has been the case with several older novels of late. I've read all the other finalists from that year except one, and unless my memory of them is faulty too, any of them would have been a better choice. It involves an interesting scientific premise, but for the most part that is overshadowed by rudimentary characterizations and plodding dialogue. Less dialogue and more exposition would have been preferred. I should say that applies mainly to the scenes on Earth in Part 1, and the Moon in Part 3. Part 2 features something Asimov rarely did before or after, the depiction of a unique alien civilization, and the novel is the better for it. Each section had been previously published, the first and last sections in Galaxy, with the middle part in Worlds of If. Both periodicals were edited by Ejler Jakobsson, but published in alternating months. Each part was titled with just a portion of a quote from the play "The Maid of Orleans" by Friedrich Schiller; "Against Stupidity...", "...the gods themselves...", "...contend in vain?", although the question mark was added by Asimov.
It's more arrogance and stubborness presented in the first section, rather than stupidity. Radio-chemist (one who studies the radioactive properties of elements) Frederick Hallam stumbles upon a revolutionary new energy source. He didn't produce it himself, nor does he understand it much, but he takes the credit, as he does for the idea it is coming from a parallel universe. He black-balls physicist Peter Lamont, who contends it is dangerous to Earth, since by his calculations the two universes have opposite physical laws, specifically of the strong and weak nuclear forces. The material passed from the para-universe to ours would increase our strong nuclear force, causing more rapid fusion within the Sun, shortening its lifespan. Since the energy our universe is receiving is essentially free, the predominant opinion of the scientific community is that Lamont is incorrect, and Hallam aims to perpetuate that opinion. It also doesn't help Lamont's position when he declares the para-universe entities are more intelligent than humanity, since they are the ones who initiated the sequence.
Part 2 is set in the para-universe, which has many more suns and solar systems, but the suns are smaller and cooler, and planets are generally smaller too. Their scientists seem to be aware that their transfer device, the Proton Pump, is hazardous to our universe, but they don't care since if our sun explodes they would be able to absorb the energy almost indefinitely without sending any material through the other way. The society consists of a three gendered species, with each having unique insticts that help perpetuate the race. Each triad consists of a Left Rational, a Right Parental, and a Mid-Emotional. The Rational provides the sperm or seed, the Parental gestates the offspring, but it takes the Emotional to bring them together in the "melting" ritual to conceive. There is another segment of society known as the Hard Ones, which turns out to be a combination of all three of the "Soft Ones" of a triad, once they have fulfilled their purpose in producing another triad. The focus is on the triad of Rational Odeen, Parental Tritt, and Emotional Dua. Tritt is only concerned with the nurture of the children, while Odeen's purpose is to learn as much science as possible and teach others. Dua is unique, which is both good and bad. She is ridiculed as a Left-Em, an Emotional that acts too much like a Rational. Little does she know that the Hard Ones brought her triad together because each are unique, destined to become their most advance leader, the Hard One Estwald.
The third section goes back to our universe, but to the Moon, several years after the events of Part 1. Ben Denison, another radio-chemist who had been summarily dismissed by Hallam early in his ascendancy as head of Earth's Proton Pump project, comes to the Moon to hopefully restart his scientific career, but this time more in the realm of physics, of which he is self-educated. Through an association with Lunarite Selene Lindstrom he embarks on new experiments. She is a tourist guide, but she is very intelligent, and quite possibly the beneficiary of genetic engineering to make her an Intuitionist. A prominent lunar physicist, Barron Neville, uses her insights to direct his own research. He initially instructs Selene to get close to Denison to find out what he's up to, then later resents her growing rapport with the Earthman. She uses what she learns from Denison to aid Neville, then decides Denison has the more rational approach to the problem, so he then gets the benefits of her intuitional insights. Together they work out a solution that offsets the hazards of the Proton Pump. In publishing his work, Denison shares credit with the previously ostracized Lamont.
If Asimov could have created human characters as interesting as the ones from the para-universe the book would have been much better. Part 1 is dry and boring, although it might have been realistic in Asmiov's mind, reminiscent of how scientists he knew talked and reacted to each other. If so, it might be the reason he spent little time in academia or research, instead focusing on his writing career. Part 3 is a little better, with Selene and Denison depicted more realistically, although it does suffer from both misogynistic opinions as well as an unconvincing portrayal of the more liberated Lunarites. Part 3 is the longest, but I wished the middle section had been expanded, especially following up on the notion Estwald would be that society's greatest leader. Dua was the one who understood the dangers to our universe, had tried to warn us of it. Did that continue once she was incorporated into the Hard One Estwald? Did they find a solution to the Proton Pump that would not endanger our universe? Were they able to perceive what Denison did to counteract their negative influence on our universe, and do something similar? We'll never know, since he cut away from that section just as the triad "passed on" and became Estwald. I won't say I don't recommend this, but will warn newer SF readers that it is not as well written as the best books (or even some mediocre ones) being released today. Not all "classics" deserve their reputation, but perhaps should continue to be considered, if only as a means of tracking the improvements within the genre. I rated this 3 stars on Goodreads. While Part 2 might have warranted a 4, Part 1 was no better than a 2.
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