#40 – The Gods Themselves Review – Isaac Asimov

The Gods Themselves Book Cover

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While it may not be one of Asimov‘s most famous books, The Gods Themselves is a uniquely ingenious and prescient yarn that touches on the issue of our civilization’s insatiable need for cheap, plentiful energy and our inability to accept the environmental consequences of that dependence. With a story told across multiple parallel universes and a description of a para-race of beings that is staggering in its complexity, the novel is a cautionary tale of scientific hubris and ego run amok and the cross-dimensional dissidents who try desperately to avert a crisis. With echoes of our own world’s current global energy crises and the environmental impact of our reliance on dirty energy sources, the book is an eerie reminder of the tradeoffs we make in the name of progress and civilization.

The Gods Themselves Summary: The book is told in three distinct parts, each with its own unique setting, rhythm, and characters. The first section takes place on Earth and focuses on a scientist named Hallam who inadvertently stumbles upon a way to exchange matter with a parallel universe that (due to the differences in physical laws between the two universes) results in a seemingly limitless source of free energy. Hallam’s creation of the “Electron Pump” is a major scientific breakthrough and turns him into an overnight celebrity. While the Pump is seen as a godsend to help feed the world’s energy needs, an up and coming scientist named Lamont eventually discovers that the exchange of matter between the two universes is creating a catastrophic increase in the strong nuclear forces within the Sun that will eventually cause it to go Nova. When Lamont brings his concerns to Hallam and the larger scientific and political community, he is shunned due to Hallam’s increasing influence and protectiveness over his creation and reputation. Unable to persuade them to stop using the Electron Pump, Lamont decides that the only way to prevent the destruction of our solar system is to try and contact the “Para-Men” in the other universe who are operating the other end of the Pump.

The second part is where things get really interesting. Set in the “Para-Universe,” it describes a race of beings that is divided up into two distinct forms – the “Hard Ones” and the “Soft Ones.” The Soft Ones are further divided into three groups: Rationals (or “Lefts”), Emotionals (or “Mids”) and Parentals (or “Rights”). Each “Triad” or mating group is made up of one of each of these types. The main focus of this section is on an Emotional named Dua who, like Lamont in our universe, discovers the disastrous consequences of the pump and tries to put a stop to it. While trying to convince her side to stop using the pump, we learn that the sun and stars in the para-universe are dying and that the pump is their only source of energy. In addition, the nova of our sun would actually be a benefit to them, as the amount of energy released would provide them with even more energy. In the midst of trying to solve the problem with the pump, we are also given more information on the purpose of the “Triad” in terms of mating and the mysterious relationship between the Soft Ones and the Hard Ones.

The Gods Themselves Review: There are really two main stories here, each equally interesting and profound. One is the tale of the Electron Pump and the struggle to maintain equilibrium between the two universes in the face of the seduction power of cheap, clean energy. The other is an exercise in species-building in which Asimov conceives of a unique social and mating structure for a race of beings that reside in a parallel universe. It’s a testament to Asimov that he is able to have these two stories co-mingle in the same story in such a natural way. And although the ending may seem a little too easy and convenient, the fascinating questions that the book poses and alternatives it suggests more than makes us for it. While it may not be the first book that comes to mind when you think of Isaac Asimov, it certainly deserves to be talked about and appreciated as much as any of his other works in my opinion.

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August 24, 2010

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