(Copyright by the author - All rights reserved)
For example, on January 23, 1971, Isaac Asimov was attending a Science Fiction Convention in New York, with his intended, Janet Jeppson. At a panel discussion, two noted science fictions authors, Lester del Rey, and Bob Silverberg discussed science fiction and the need for the story to outweigh the science. Bob worried that some in the industry worried less about the human aspect of science fiction, and more about the trivial matters of, to use his example, plutonium-186. Asimov immediately laughed at this for there cannot be plutonium-186, and most members of the audience knew it. After the talk, Asimov approached Silverberg and said that while there cannot be plutonium-186 he would show what a real science-fiction writer could do and write a story about the impossible element. Silverberg said, “you write it and I’ll include it in my next anthology,” and a story was born. In one shot Asimov turned an off-handed example in a panel discussion into his next, and some say his best, science fiction novel, “The Gods Themselves.”
Now it must be remembered that Asimov had all but left science fiction over a decade before. His last science fiction novel (excluding “Fantastic Voyage,” which he wrote based on the screenplay and not on his own) was “Lucky Starr and the Rings of Saturn.” This was part of his juvenile series and was published in 1958. His last adult novel was “The Naked Sun,” (Reviewed on this blog) and that was published in 1957. True, Asimov had written several short stories during that time and had crafted several anthologies of his past work, but for the last dozen years the good doctor had been concentrating on his non-fiction endeavors.
On February 6, 1971, Asimov sat down to craft a short story based on the idea of plutonium-186. He was considerably older than the last time he wrote science fiction and his views on the world had also changed... considerably. Gone was the wide-eyed enthusiasm of his youth, and in its place was a skeptical view of mankind, and its ability to see beyond its immediate gratification. Remember, this was the early 1970s. The problems of nuclear reactors were becoming apparent, there were gas shortages looming, and pollution and overpopulation were topics of the day. To Asimov science was the answer, but would people listen?
Isaac’s “short” story involved the discovery of what seemed a cheap “free” source of energy. After the planet becomes dependent on it, a young scientist discovers that the use of this new energy source may lead to the destruction of our solar system. Will humanity give up its way of life, or will they put it off to the next generation?
“The Gods Themselves,” is from the Friedrich Schiller quote: “Against stupidity, the gods themselves contend in vain.” At this time of his life, Asimov was less positive about the fate of mankind.
The five-thousand-word length, originally sought, soon bloomed to ten-thousand-words as Asimov felt a true thrill with writing science fiction again. The hallmark of a true writer. Anthology be damned, he was going to let the story write itself out completely. By the time he finished, on February 28th, it was twenty thousand words long, four times what it was supposed to be. This made it too long for inclusion in the original anthology, but Doubleday publishers like the idea so much they asked Asimov to expand it to novel length. Asimov at first said no. It was a good story as told and to expand it would just be padding. Then, thinking on his feet, Asimov came up with the idea of telling the story from two different points of view. The new energy source in the original story was possible because of communication with another universe. What if the second part of the book dealt exclusively with that universe? Then the third part of the story could be in another setting and change the downbeat ending to an upbeat one. Doubleday said “great,” and now Asimov had to make it work.
Just a side note. Lest you start to feel sorry for Bob Silverberg, having to put out his anthology sans Asimov, not to worry. To make up for the loss of “Gods,” Isaac wrote “Take a Match,” and Bob used that. Asimov was a man of his word and could almost always be trusted to come through.
While Isaac was known for his science fiction, his universes were almost exclusively populated by humans. He had dabbled with aliens in some of his short stories, but he never tried to make a completely alien civilization before. Now he had to. The market had also changed in the last thirteen years. The sexual revolution was in full swing and publishers wanted sex in their stories. Part two of “Gods” would revolve around an alien universe with alien sex. In fact, it would be populated by creatures that had three sexes, not just horny humanoids with pointy ears. This was beyond anything Asimov had attempted before.
The book was finally finished on September 7th, 1971, and it looked like it was going to be published without being serialized in any prominent science fiction magazine. This was because “Analog” had lost editor John Campbell some months before, and Ben Bova had not yet taken the reigns. In an usual twist, both “Galaxy” and “If” published the book in three parts over three successive months. This was because both related magazines published on alternate months, and each section of “Gods” could stand alone as a short story/novelette. The April 1972 edition of “If” contained the story of the tri-sexed aliens, and reportedly sold out on the newsstand. An interesting commentary on the state of science fiction fans in the early 1970s.
The book was published in 1972, and was widely successful. In 1973 it won both the “Nebula” and “Hugo” awards for best novel. While this author feels that the awards were given primarily to honor Asimov’s past contributions, “The Gods Themselves” proved that the good doctor was still at the top of his form.
All from a casual remark about the illogic of plutonium-186.
That is what it takes to be a prolific writer.
Now on to the review.
“The Gods themselves,” is divided into three sections of increasing length and complexity. The first section, entitled, “Against stupidity . . .” (See quote reference above) focus on the “discovery” of a passage to another universe with laws different from our own. In the “para-universe,” nuclear attractions are stronger so that any element that comes from then to us soon becomes unstable and highly radioactive.
The section uniquely begins with chapter 6, which Asimov explains, is intentional. It bounces between the “present” when Peter Lamont, a young Ph.D. discovers that the “Electron Pump,” that now supplies earth with its power, was not the result of Frederick Hallam, but was given to him by intelligence outside of this universe, and the “past,” when a young Hallam finds that a bottle of “stable” tungsten metal has become unstable and radioactive. It is an interesting way of telling the story, and one that I have never encountered before. Rather than being a simple “flashback,” Asimov moves the reader back and forth through twenty years chapter by chapter depending on the readers need to know. Hallam is now the savior of mankind and edits history so that he gets sole credit for the Electron Pump. Any effort to examine it, or check for problems, is suppressed. Lamont, with the help of a linguistic expert, discovers that the Electron Pump is dangerous to the laws of our universe and continuing use may result in the destruction of the sun or our entire area of the galaxy. Because Lamont cannot conclusively prove his ideas, and because the Pump is the easy solution to mankind’s problems, no one will help Lamont explore his ideas and stop the destruction of man.
The next section of the book is entitled, “. . . the gods themselves . . .” and takes place in the parallel universe. It focuses on Dua, Odeen, and Tritt, members of a triad that these creatures need to form in order to reproduce. Odeen is called a “Rational” and his job is to learn and contact others. Tritt is called a “Parental,” and his job is to tend to the children, family, and sex. He acts more on instinct than thought. Dua, who Asimov refers to as a “she” is an “Emotional,” and it is her job to bind with the rational and parental to allow procreation. All three must “melt” for this to occur.
Dua is an unusual “Emotional” because she has a large amount of “Rational” in her makeup. She, along with Odeen and Tritt, are “Soft Ones,” capable of undefined shapes and moving through solid objects. Their teachers are the revered “Hard Ones.” They seem to run the planet and are looked upon as gods. The exact relationship between the Soft and Hard Ones is not revealed until the end of the section.
In this universe, nuclear forces are much stronger. Suns are smaller because anything approaching the size of our sun would be too densely packed and would go nova. With smaller, cooler suns, the night sky has only seven visible stars. The planets own star is cooling down and energy is the food of the “Soft Ones.” As a result, the birth rate has been declining and a new source of energy is needed. Enter the “Positron Pump.” The “Hard Ones” have communicated with our universe and are using the pump to bring energy into their universe. They know that the Pump will make our sun unstable, but they want this as they hope to use the force of our sun going nova to provide them with energy, independent of their own star, for a million years. It is the “Emotional,” Dua, who discovers this plot and objects to the destruction of other life forms for what she sees as selfish gain. It is Dua who has warned us of the danger of our “Electron Pump.”
The final section of the book is entitled “. . .canted in vain?” and here Asimov attaches a question mark to the original quote. His intent, in the first story, was to end on a negative note, reflecting his pessimism at the current state of selfish humanity. By the time the book was completed, Asimov decided to end on a much more positive note, remembering that individuals can sometimes save the group from itself.
The story starts on our moon sometime later (the first two sections occur roughly simultaneously in the two universes). It centers on the actions of Ben Denison, an engineer from earth, and Selene Lindstrom L, a native of the moon. Earth is in a slow decline creatively with more energy put into the Electron Pump, and less energy put into other endeavors. The moon is the current cutting edge of science, and Denison wants to migrate to the moon to be a part of that. Politics, as usual, are woven through the story. The moon wants more independence, and earth sees the moon as only one of her “colonies” beholden to the mother planet. Life is hard on the moon with limited resources, and Asimov goes out of his way to paint a society free from the “puritanical norms” of the earth. Nudity is common, though not necessary to the plot, children are born out of wedlock, and sex is more or less free. Once again, having little to do with the story, and in no way connected to the sex lives of the para-universe.
Denison is aware of the theories about the problems caused by the “Electron Pump,” but Hallam still controls earth science any attempt to question his gift to man is met with professional banishment. Denison has come to the moon to test his theories and look for a solution. For some reason no one has been able to set up and “Electron Pump” on the moon and Denison believes that the para-universals need a strong planetary magnetic field to find the area to make the passage between universe. The moon has no magnetic field, so no door, so no “Electron Pump.”
With the help of Selene, Denison must try and find a solution to the energy crisis, and the problems it is causing, before running afoul of both the earth establishment and the lunar revolutionaries who want the moon to become a separate world from earth. And all of this before the sun, and this arm of the galaxy, is destroyed.
Unlike Asimov’s earlier works, the portrait of scientist as savior is not as clear as he once painted it. The years have shown Isaac how harsh and self-centered scientists can be, and he portrays that in this book. In the end, it is science that saves the day, but it must fight the pettiness that is in each man regardless of his chosen field.
The book is well written in a somewhat unusual Asimov style. Any hangups or ignorance of sex he displayed in his earlier works is obviously gone. This book shows a more mature writer, one that has seen his ideals of youth tested and strained. Yet it still shows hope for the world if they would only listen.
Still in print, “The Gods Themselves,” can be found in most major bookstores or online at Amazon.com.