Saturday, August 31, 2013

1973: The Gods Themselves

Isaac Asimov is one of the big three of science fiction along with Robert A. Heinlein and Arthur C. Clark. The handful of lucky individuals that have been reading this blog will be no stranger to Heinlein. I have already read all four of his Hugo Award winning books. Clark will be next month and even though The Gods Themselves is my 20th Hugo winner, it is the first Asimov book to win and the first one I have ever read. Sadly, while I liked the book, I expected more from one of the greats of science fiction.
Whatever complaints I have with this book, the title was not one of them. I am a sucker for titles and this one immediately grabbed my interest. Who are these gods? I didn’t know and the back of the book didn’t give me much of any idea. Opening the book brought another surprise. The three sections of the novel formed a phrase of which The Gods Themselves was the middle part. The parts are called Against Stupidity…, …The Gods Themselves…, and …Contend in Vain? The whole quote is translation from Friedrich Schiller, an 18th Century German poet and playwright.
I know I am going on about the title but it did bring up my hopes to greater heights than was truly warranted. Now, don’t get me wrong, The Gods Themselves is a good book. Asimov’s writing style is utilitarian but it is still interesting. The problem is, with the exception of the second section, there is not enough drama which is strange since the stakes are so high. In the first section, we are introduced to a future where mankind has discovered a way to create cheap and seemingly limitless energy with a device called the Electron Pump. It doesn’t actually pump electrons but instead changes matter with matter from another dimension where the laws of physics aren’t quite the same.  Lamont, a young scientist, starts to research the Electron Pump and realizes that its creator, Dr. Hallam, may not have so much invented it as stumbled upon it. Lamont discovers two other startlingly facts: there are beings on the other side of the pump that started the process and that it is slowly changing the rules of physics in our solar system and will eventually cause the sun to nova. He tries to spread the word but it shut down by the scientific and political community because the Electron Pump is the basis for human civilization and no one can think of giving it up. I don’t know if it was Asimov’s plan but there is a strong parallel to contemporary oil and energy issues.
It is a good set up but Asimov gives the story such a weak ending in the third section that it doesn’t seem worth it. There is some dramatic tension but the solution is so easy and so painless that there is no impact. I was left wanting more.
So two of the three sections were a letdown but what about that second section: The Gods Themselves? I haven’t read much Asimov but from what I have read about him he almost never wrote about aliens. Robots were more his thing. It is a shame that he didn’t write more about aliens because if the second section is any indication, he was good at it. …The Gods Themselves… is about the aliens that created the Electron Pump. Their sun is dying and they need the energy. Not in the same way humans do though. The aliens absorb energy directly.  In one of the most interesting twists, they are divided into three sexes, Rationals, Emotionals, and Parentals. Asimov uses masculine pronouns for the Rationals and Parentals and feminine for the Emotionals but thinking of them as male and female is a mistake. They reproduce by melding with each other into a larger whole. The section doesn’t give a complete overview of their society but enough to understand each of the three sexes and the general structure. It is a wonderful story with a real sense of wonder and much more tension then the other two. Read it yourself; I won’t give the ending here. Asimov should have focused more on this and less on the real world story.

My first experience with one of the greats was a mild disappointment but I am not sorry I read it (unlike some other Hugo Winners). Asimov could have done so much more with this book. Hopefully the next winner from one of the greats, Arthur C. Clark’s Rendezvous with Rama, will be better. See you there next time.