Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The Gods Themselves - Isaac Asimov

Given his enormous output, I'm a very inexperienced Asimov reader but from what I understand his career in science fiction can be split into two major periods. The first covered the 1940s and 1950s, in which he wrote a great deal for the magazines that then dominated science fiction. Novels started appearing in 1950, starting with Pebble in the Sky, a novel of the Galactic Empire. So far I've read four of his books. The original Foundation trilogy and I, Robot. All of these have been published in the 1950-1953 period and lean heavily on work Asimov had produced in the 1940s. During the 1960s Asimov mostly wrote non-fiction. The Gods Themselves (1972) can be seen as something of a triumphant return to the genre. In this book he answers the critics of his earlier work, winning a Hugo, Nebula and Locus award in the process.

The story is that of the discovery of the electron pump, a device that promised a clean and inexhaustible source of energy by using the different laws of nature that can be found in parallel universes. The story of its discovery one of coincidence and pettiness but the man being hailed as the inventor soon achieves rock star status. His influence on the scientific world is such that he leaves a trail of broken careers in his wake and suppresses information that threatens his status and the use of 'his' invention. Not everybody is discouraged by his bullying though. Doubts are being raised about the safety of the device. Soon a theory surfaces that suggests continued use might cause the sun to go nova. Bitterness, stupidity and infighting ensue.

The title is taken from Die Jungfrau von Orleans (The Maid of Orleans, 1801) by Friedrich Schiller, who said "Mit der Dummheit kämpfen Götter selbst vergebens", most commonly translated as "against stupidity the gods themselves contend in vain." The novel essentially consists of three novellas, each with a part of that quote in the title. The novellas had been published in Galaxy and Worlds of If earlier in 1972. I guess you could call the novel a fixup.

One of the main problems I had with Asimov's earlier books is that they read like unedited manuscripts. His prose is atrocious. Most of it is awkward dialogue with hardly any descriptive passages. Although the concepts that he discusses in these works are interesting enough, Asimov, at that point, clearly didn't have the skills to make the most of it. For that reason I decided that if I was going to read anything by him again it would be something from his later years. It must be said  he has improved. His prose still isn't exceptional but it is certainly readable. The Gods Themselves is a much smoother read than the early  Foundation novels.

Asimov also tackles some other problems with his early writing with varying degrees of success. The lack of aliens (personally I find science fiction without aliens perfectly acceptable but some people disagree), the lack of sex and the lack of well drawn female characters.  The solution to the first two is to include alien sex in the novel. Don't worry he doesn't get too explicit. The alien section of the novel, of the second novella if you will, is probably where Asimov challenges himself most as a writer. The creatures he describes are very alien. It took me a while to settle into their mode of thinking. As for the well drawn female characters, I don't think the novel passes the Bechdel test but there is one female character with an important role in the story. I guess we shouldn't expect miracles.

The stupidity Asimov refers to in the title is mostly committed by scientists. Where in most science fiction novels, and certainly in more than a few of Asimov's stories, scientists are the heroes, in this novel they are a petty, self-centered lot. Where the 'inventor' of the electron pump - who mostly got the idea handed to him by the aliens - is doing everything to protect his creation, while the scientists who got sidetracked try to discredit him out of spite. It's a sad lot and a very sharp contrast to quite a lot of other science fiction novels. I'm particularly thinking of Kim Stanley Robinson's novels that radiate a belief in the process of science, even if those practicing it can be very nasty as individuals. In this novel just about every character has purely selfish reasons for their actions, loosing perspective on the larger threat in the process. Stupidity is too mild a word in some cases.

Asimov also exposes a problem that I've come across in environmental science quite a lot. Not wanting to give up a comfort or luxury despite the obvious environmental drawbacks. I've always thought cars are a perfect example of this. There is a long list of problems associated with them. There is acidification, greenhouse gas emissions, traffic related deaths, the noise they produce, particulate matter and smog issues and the huge amounts of raw materials put into making them to name a few. Personally I also feel that they are a less than optimal solution for transporting large numbers of people in a highly urbanized environment but people have been known to disagree with me on that. Fact is we do not want to give them up, or even limit their use, so we keep looking for technological fixes. One that is popular at the moment is the development of electrical cars. It must be said they are quieter but the electricity to make them run is produced elsewhere and still for the most part by using fossil fuels. Part of the emissions is simply being shifted elsewhere, providing, at best, only a partial solution to the emission problem. And of course none to some of the other problems I've mentioned. In fact, the use of various metals in the batteries might be adding a whole new problem. Making cars sustainable is not an easy matter, it may defeat human ingenuity yet.

The novel raises the stakes much further. If we are unwilling to give up, or even limit, something with such obvious problems, how hard would it be getting people to give up what is essentially free energy without any side effects based on dubious and untested theoretical physics very few people are actually capable of understanding? Even Asimov doesn't have an answer to that. He resorts to a technical fix himself. A very elegant one it has to be said. He doesn't seem to believe humanity will be able to give up it's bad habits without something better to replace them though. Which puts the title of the novel in yet another perspective.

Some people see the Hugo win The Gods Themselves as a retroactive reward for Asimov's golden age work but I must admit I enjoyed it a lot more than everything else I've read by him. At this point he has grown as a writer, able to keep up with a younger generation of authors making a name for themselves in the 70s. There might have been books that deserved the win more, I haven't really read enough of the period to pass judgement on that, but it is certainly a strong novel. While I can see the appeal of his older work, if someone asked me for a recommendation of Asimov's work I would be much more likely to suggest this novel.

Book Details
Title: The Gods Themselves
Author: Isaac Asimov
Publisher: Gollancz
Pages: 269
Year: 2013
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-575-12905-4
First published: 1972


  1. I've read this one a long time ago, and the alien part was what stayed with me. I guess I liked his aliens way more than I liked his humans. :)

    1. The aliens are.... alien. I think he achieved what he aimed for with that section.

  2. If you are in the mood for more Asimov then you might try reading his novel The End of Eternity. I'd be interested in hearing your evaluation of where it falls on the spectrum between Second Foundation and The Gods Themselves.

    Also, towards the end of his life, Asimov wrote a short story called "Gold" in which he imagines a way to portray the aliens from The Gods Themselves in a new medium, the "compu-drama". "Gold" is an amusing bit of self-referential recursive science fiction.