“Against stupidity the gods themselves contend in vain.”
Isaac Asimov’s The Gods Themselves earned the Hugo Award for Best Science Fiction Novel, the Nebula Award for Best Science Fiction Novel, and the Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel. About 15 years ago it was put on the Locus list of All Time Best Science Fiction Novels.
If you’re anything like me, that’s enough to put The Gods Themselves on your To Be Read List and, indeed, it has been on mine for years because I aim to read all those award winners sometime before I die. What moved The Gods Themselves to the top of the list was that Random House Audio recently produced it in audio format and it’s read by one of my favorite classic SF readers, Scott Brick. (I love Scott Brick!)
The Gods Themselves has a strange structure. The story is told non-linearly but instead of using the traditional flashbacks, the book starts with Chapter 6. In an Author’s Note, Asimov assures us that this is not a mistake. From there it jumps around but always orients us with what the appropriate chapter number would have been had the tale been told in chronological order. This made me laugh. I can just imagine the dissonance Dr. Asimov would have experienced if he’d put his story in the wrong order without giving us some instructions!
The first part of the story is about Dr. Hallam, an opportunistic but no-too-brilliant radiochemist who is so driven by spite and stubborn competition with a colleague that he serendipitously discovers a free perpetual source of energy that humans very quickly become dependent on. By not giving credit where it’s due, Dr. Hallam wins the Novel prize and becomes famous and revered. The energy comes from aliens in a parallel universe where the laws of physics are different. The aliens have discovered a way to swap energy with our universe so that both universes win…. or do they?
While writing a story about the history of Halam’s discovery of what is now called the “Electron Pump,” a young physicist named Lamont, who grew up idealizing Hallam, discovers that the man is not as worthy as the public thinks. He comes in conflict with Hallam and suggests that the pump might be dangerous. Hallam, feeling threatened, sets out to ruin Lamont. Politicians get involved. At this point the book becomes a scientific and political thriller as we wonder whether the Pump is safe and scientists and politicians try to advance or protect themselves at other people’s expense. It will certainly remind readers of some of the political wrangling that occurs today as we search for clean cheap energy sources.
In the next section of The Gods Themselves, we see what’s happening in the parallel universe. This part slows down as Asimov spends a lot of time describing a strange alien society where three different sexes form a triad for breeding. He seems to be saying something about sex roles here, something that annoyed me at first because the logical “Rationals” are given masculine pronouns while the intuitive “Emotionals” are given feminine pronouns. (However, the motherly “Parentals” are given masculine pronouns, too). By the end, when I saw what all this had to do with the Electron Pump, I felt a little better about it. This section is an interruption to the exciting story of part one, but most readers will want to know what’s going on in the parallel universe and Asimov’s creative alien society is fascinating. (Oh, and for those of you who think Asimov never wrote about sex, read this part of The Gods Themselves.)
In the last section, we’re on the moon and back to the scientific thriller as Halam’s enemies try to discredit and shut down the Pump. Is the Pump really dangerous? If so, will they be able to stop it? Tune in to find out!
The Gods Themselves is science-y, but those who recall some of their high school chemistry and physics will be fine. And, actually, it’s okay if you don’t understand the science behind the energy source. The more important science-y part is more about the scientific method than about chemistry and physics. It highlights the importance of intuition and serendipity in scientific progress, but warns against false assumptions, bias and personal agendas.
Back in 1972 Asimov’s story was serialized in three parts in Galaxy Magazine and Worlds of If before being published as The Gods Themselves. In Yours, Isaac Asimov: A Life in Letters, a biography of the author written by his younger brother, Asimov identifies The Gods Themselves as his favorite of his science fiction novels. That’s another reason to read it.
As I mentioned, I listened to Scott Brick narrate the recent audio version produced by Random House Audio. It’s 11.5 hours long and I recommend it. I’m so thankful that audio publishers are not neglecting the classics!