Mining the Genre Asteroid: The Gods Themselves by Isaac Asimov

26 Dec

A mysterious source of energy from another universe and the emergence of particles that should not exist according to principles of modern physics and chemistry. And thus, when they decay, they release free, clean energy. Who cares about the motives of the para-men in the parallel universe who are sending the atoms of impossible Plutonium 186 to us in exchange for atoms of Tungsten 186 (equally unstable in their world), right? The Electron Pump is a benefit to both sides, right?

Or is it? Is the Electron Pump really that benign, or is it a devilish energy trap designed to foster dependency on it, or worse, be actively harmful to both humans and aliens alike? Once the Pump is in operation, can a source of limitless free energy that threatens the survival of two civilizations even be stopped? Can humans and the soft ones work together from across universes to stop what is utter madness? Against stupidity The Gods Themselves strive in vain.

389px-TheGodsThemselves(1stEd)

The Gods Themselves is the Hugo award winning 1972 novel from Isaac Asimov, and its arguably his best novel-length work. Written after a long furlough from science fiction (mostly taken up by writing dozens of non-fiction books), the novel is an exploration of trans-dimensional physical laws, as seen through bureaucracy, uniquely alien aliens, and a conflict over the scientific method and scientific progress.

The first portion of the novel revolves around the discovery of the pump and the legal and academic wrangling over the details of the scientific nature of the problem. The wrangling over the nature of the pump and its legacy is set against the backdrop of the realization of just how dangerous the pump is and how difficult it is to stop without the cooperation of the other side, or even their own side.

The middle portion of The Gods Themselves is the most famous and memorable section for many readers. Introducing aliens with three ‘genders’ and a thoroughly inhuman viewpoint is a masterstroke of worldbuilding and character creation from Asimov. Dua, the ‘Emotional’, comes across and is gendered by the text as female (although this is wildly imprecise given the nature of alien reproduction) and is the lead character in this section. Her triad partners, Tritt and Odeen, together with Dua struggle to understand the crisis from their civilization’s point of view and how to stop it.  In a neat playing with time, the events here overlap with the first portion of the novel.

The final section resolves the frames of the first two sections by taking us to the Moon, where research on stopping the Electron Pump can take place since the inhabitants of the Moon have not been able to establish pumps of their own. This section, in addition to carrying a couple of characters from the first section, introduces us to Selene, a secretly gene-engineered human whose transhuman abilities are key to confronting the problem of the Electron Pump once and for all. Selene, along with Dua, are two of Asimov’s best and most rounded female protagonists in all of his fiction.

The Gods Themselves has more resonance than ever. While Asimov would (co-writing with the late Frederik Pohl) write a non-fiction treatise THIS ANGRY EARTH, it is easy to read the story of the Electron Pump as a metaphor for the use of Fossil Fuels right here and now. Fossil Fuels are the most concentrated and efficient storage mechanism for energy that we have. The breaking of the carbon-hydrogen bonds in the hydrocarbons of oil and gas produces a lot of energy — energy that drives our civilization.

And, yet, that energy comes at a devastating cost to the environment, to the planet and to our future as a species. Pollution by oil spills is bad enough, but it is the carbon dioxide byproduct of fossil fuel burning that may yet wreck our civilization for good. And yet, the efforts to try to wean ourselves off of fossil fuels face seemingly insurmountable resistance. Against this stupidity, do we contend in vain?

The Gods Themselves is entertaining, thought provoking and well written. Asimov puts together all of his talents into a single volume and produces a work that should stand high in the reading oeuvre of any lover of the genre.

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One Response to “Mining the Genre Asteroid: The Gods Themselves by Isaac Asimov”

  1. Joachim Boaz December 26, 2013 at 3:03 pm #

    There were so man better books that year up for the Hugos…. I like to think that this was a pity award — yes, it’s solid, rather intelligent but Silverberg’s Dying Inside and The Book of Skulls are both far better novels (Silverberg from this era is actually literary where Asimov most definitely was not). Spinrad’s The Iron Dream , Brunner’s The Sheep Look Up, Effinger’s What Entropy Means to Me, were all better choices for the Nebula as well. All are better written, more inventive, and downright brilliant.

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