Against irrational exuberance the fans themselves contend in vain

The Gods Themselves — Isaac Asimov


Following the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik in 1957, Russian-born American author Isaac Asimov turned his energies to educating the American public. By the time of his death he had produced non-fiction books in every category of the Dewey Decimal system save the 100s. This came at the expense of his science fiction. Between 1959 and 1972, he published only one novel (a movie tie-in) and a comparative handful of short stories.

Asimov’s 1972 novel The Gods Themselves, his first in thirteen years, must therefore have seemed to many science fiction fans as the return of a giant. But not to me, because I was an eleven-year-old still reading through his entire back list to date; from my point of view there was no hiatus at all. Given the context, I can see why Asimov’s fans went gaga over this novel. I am not entirely certain what I was thinking beyond “yay, another Asimov!”

Asimov’s return to novel-length SF was an ambitious one….

This is a novel that—sorry, typo. This is not a novel at all. It is three linked novellas, like several of his earlier works. They do, however, hang together fairly well.

Against Stupidity…

Pity poor Peter Lamont: one poorly chosen comment regarding Frederick Hallam (Father of the Electron Pump on which the Earth’s current prosperity depends) made an enemy of the powerful and vindictive celebrity. Lamont is only the latest of Hallam’s victims. As Hallam’s reputation grew, he used his influence to get back at anyone who slighted him or even appeared to have slighted him. Too bad that Lamont did not fully take that into account before affronting Hallam.

Lamont had the misfortune to observe (truthfully) that Hallam was at best the junior partner in the effort to establish the Electron Pump. The true architects of the scheme were the extra-dimensional intelligences, the para-men, who through means unknown to humans replaced a sample of tungsten 186 with plutonium 186, an isotope that was stable in the universe of the para-men (where the strong nuclear force is a hundred times stronger than in ours). Plutonium 186 is in no way stable here and should have fissioned as soon as it came into existence in our universe. Happily, in the time it took for the laws native to our realm to permeate the sample, Hallam noticed the substitution, had the sample analyzed, and made (or at least took credit for making) the intuitive leap that intelligences outside our universe made the swap and further, that transferring materials between the two realms held the promise of unlimited energy for both humans and para-men. A few decades later and all Earth depends on the power generated by Electron Pumps that swap tungsten 186 for plutonium 186.

Outraged at Hallam’s abuse, Lamont decides to poke a bit deeper into Hallam’s claims. To Lamont’s increasing alarm, he discovers that Hallam’s most critical misstatement doesn’t concern the history of the Electron Pump; it’s Hallam’s take on the physics of the Pump. If Lamont is correct, then the current age of prosperity is doomed. The Electron Pumps, if allowed to run long enough, will destabilize the sun and perhaps this entire arm of the galaxy!

But who is going to listen to one discredited man with a known grudge against the Father of the Electron Pump?

…The Gods Themselves…

In another realm, close to ours in some ways and yet far away in others, Dua is painfully aware that her intellectual curiosity makes her something of a freak. Her people, the Soft Ones, have three sexes: nurturing Parentals, intellectual Rationals, and the flighty Emotionals who bind the other two sexes. Her curiosity marks her as odd. Although she has been happy enough with her two partners, Parental Tritt and Rational Odeen, her deviation from Soft One norms (in particular her reluctance to parent a third child) causes friction between her and traditionalist Tritt.

Not only does Dua chaff at the restrictions her society places on her, she is increasingly worried about the implications of the Positron Pump on which both known forms of life, Soft Ones and Hard Ones, depend. Ultimately, use of the Pump means doom for the people over in that other realm where the nuclear force is a hundred times weaker. Doom for the humans, but not for Dua’s people, The human worlds will be destroyed by a quasar, but that quasar can supply energy to Dua’s world. This energy will be easier to harvest than that from the Pumps.

Hard Ones and Rationals justify the exploitation of the other universe as necessary for survival. Parentals care only about their children. Most Emotionals wouldn’t be able to grasp the implications. Oddball Dua can. And, as an Emotional she is burdened with an ability that apparently has little effect on the people in charge of her world: empathy.

But there are hidden forces at work in Dua’s life, forces that will transform her into her own worst enemy…

… Contend in Vain?

Denison was one of the earliest victims of Hallam’s vindictiveness, He was driven out of physics because he was brighter than Hallam and because he let Hallam know it. Now retired after a successful business career, Denison is relocating to the Moon, where he hopes to re-establish himself as a scientist.

The Moon may only be home to ten thousand people but these ten thousand are among the best and the brightest. They form the one community on Earth not afraid of change. Although his birth on Earth will always mark him as other on the Moon, not all of the locals are xenophobes. Some of them are willing to be very friendly indeed…

But is Denison’s new friend actually interested in Denison the man? Or is she a revolutionary who wants to use his discoveries to free the Moon from Earth?


[A note to younger readers: when this came out we had no idea what powered quasars. Science Marches On!]

The Suck Fairy can be very cruel. I feared that she would have waved her wand over yet another young enthusiasm of mine. Well … this didn’t suck anywhere near as badly as it could have. Although to be honest the degree to which I was dreading rereading this may have shaped my reaction.

Re-reading this, I realized its debts to the then-recent New Wave/Grognard slap-flight in SF. Asimov tries to convince readers that he is no antediluvian stick-in-the-mud by doing something a little fancy with the structure of his first section. He then undermines his case by assuring the reader it’s deliberate and not a mistake. Still, as an eleven-year-old, I thought it was cool.

There were those who said Asimov couldn’t write sex scenes. Some sections of this book appear to be designed to disprove that claim. Asimov is somewhat successful in that he, after all, *did* write some sex scenes. Asimov *can* write sex scenes. Asimov *shouldn’t* write sex scenes. At least his were better than the cringe-making bits in Footfall.

As well as evincing mild stylistic ambitions, Asimov tried to write alien aliens. This was a bit of a stretch for him. In earlier years, he had avoided writing aliens at all, because he found editor John W. Campbell’s insistence that humans always be better than aliens off-putting. The Soft Ones have three genders and the Hard Ones have an entirely different arrangement (one that we don’t really get to see). Obviously not human, right?

Unfortunately, Asimov sabotages himself. Even though parental/rational/emotional doesn’t map onto male/female, he uses male and female pronouns. While it’s true that he uses “he” and “him” for the Parentals, using “she” and “her” for the Emotionals may have predisposed him to make Emotionals conform to certain negative stereotypes of women.

He goes on to describe the Rationals as the primary decision-makers of their triads, not to mention much smarter and more interesting than the duller Emotionals and Parentals. He has used the gender stereotypes of his own culture as the unexamined basis of his supposedly alien race.

He isn’t any more successful with his one female human character. Denison’s new friend Selene has one notable ability: Intuition with a capital I. Asimov could have limned her in Dicksonian fashion [1], as a larger-than-life character with an uncanny talent. Instead Selene comes off as a bit of a cliché, the scientist’s arm candy who has a talent for inspiration without any grasp of piddling details like math. I think Asimov was trying to show us that he gets women’s lib, but he’s not able to shake off his cultural assumptions.

Because Asimov’s aliens live in a universe where the strong nuclear force is much stronger, their stars last for a comparatively short time. I found myself wondering how it was that intelligent life had time to evolve [2]. I also wondered how autotrophs [3] could evolve intelligence. Grass able to imagine, develop, and construct phased plasma rifles to discourage grazing cows? I am curious if Asimov had any specific evolutionary pathway in mind.

On the human side of things, the backstory features a crisis that killed billions of people, caused by rampant population growth and energy shortages. The population bomb stuff is an off-the-shelf trope for the SF of the time. The energy crisis didn’t kick in for another year or two after this book’s publication, so Asimov is ahead of the curve there.

It’s not uncommon for SF stories to feature space colonies that develop nationalistic tendencies before splitting from their former home world. Generally these are thinly veiled retellings of the American Revolution [4]. I found it interesting that Asimov rejects that story line. In this novel, the head lunar nationalist is an extremist who proves unrepresentative and unconvincing to his own people. He is pathetic rather than dangerous.

Hallam’s spiteful treatment of Denison reminded me of a real life tragedy. Arthur Eddington set back astrophysics by decades because he sabotaged Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar. Chandrasekhar’s model, if true, would have superseded Eddington’s. I have no idea whether or not Asimov was thinking of that particular episode, but I am sure he was familiar with many cases of Big Egos using their position to lash out at perceived threats.

Another plot point that may have been drawn from Asimov’s own academic and scientific experience is lunar xenophobia. Denis was born on Earth, which means that he’s a second-class citizen on the Moon. His intelligence and expertise make him valuable; that, even the bigots will grudgingly acknowledge. However, he will never be “One of Us.” Someone like that shouldn’t be knocking boots with true Lunarian women!

Asimov was, of course, as American as bagels and lox—but he was a Jew born in Russia. His Jewish ancestry barred him from his first-choice university; his Russian birth would have shaped his life from time to time, particularly in the paranoid 1950s.

The Gods Themselves was very well received in its day: it won both the Hugo and the Nebula. It reads less well today. I don’t think Asimov’s treatment of women has aged particularly gracefully. Science Has Marched On where details like quasars are concerned. However, the novel isn’t without its points of interest.

The Gods Themselves is available new from Random Penguin and from the Orion Publishing Group.

1: One of Gordon R. Dickson’s superhumans could go from facts to conclusion via a path the character was completely unable to convey in a rational manner. The successful results of this odd method suggest that, even though incomprehensible, it was reliable.

2: I assume that the absence of other life forms is because the Hard Ones have exterminated them all, commandeering their world’s dwindling resources for themselves.

3: Autotroph: an organism capable of synthesizing its own food from inorganic substances using light or chemical energy.

4: Except for Joss Whedon’s Firefly, which mines the Slaveholders Rebellion for backstory.

Please note: comments will be read-only for the next week or two; Livefyre has ceased service, and we are doing some site maintenance.