Isaac Asimov
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The Gods Themselves

Fawcett Crest, PB, © 1972, 288 pp, ISBN #0-449-01829-125
Reviewed September 1997

The Gods Themselves is occasionally referred to as Asimov's best single work of fiction, a bold claim considering that Asimov has several science fiction classics under his belt, including "Nightfall", The Foundation Trilogy, and his myriad robot books. But it's not an entirely ludicrous claim; The Gods Themselves is a good, solid book.

Asimov's problem as a writer is that he's never been stylistically very interesting, and he suffers from the same flatness of characterization that stigmatized many writers of SF's Golden Age. To be sure, comparing Asimov to today's more sophisticated authors, who built their own work in part on his, is not very fair, but it is a genuine drawback to his work. On the other hand, his greatest strength is his ability to explain his ideas and story background in clear, concise terms that any layman can understand, and that's certainly not a skill to be casually ignored.

In the late 21st century, mankind is contacted obliquely by creatures living in a parallel universe, one in which the physical laws are slightly different. It is discovered that transferral of certain matter between these universes can release energy into each universe, and this results in the Electron Pump, a clean, unlimited energy source. But not all are convinced of the safety of the Pump, and it is theorized by some that the Pump in fact is also equalizing the physical characteristics of the two universes, as well as transferring matter, and that this equalization will soon lead the sun to go supernova. (Asimov's justification for this "law equalization" process seems a little shaky, and involved some handwaving to actually create a plot.) However, the powers-that-be are more interested in the practical and political benefits of the Pump, and don't listen to these cautions.

In the middle part of the book, Asimov removes us from the confines of our universe and introduces us to the beings of the para-universe, who consist of "Soft Ones", low-density creatures with elaborate reproductive processes, and the more intelligent "Hard Ones", who are behind the creation of the Electron Pump (or, rather, the Positron Pump in their universe). The para-universe is near to dying, as it has a shorter life span than ours, and it turns out that the Hard Ones want to destroy our sun (and neighboring galactic region) to yield an endless flow of energy into their own world to replace their dying sun.

The final part involves the efforts of some humans to figure out what's really going on, and find a solution to the problem, since it seems clear the government won't shut down the Pumps. It takes place on the moon, and explores early lunar culture and moon-Earth politics.

The Gods Themselves features two especially interesting elements: First, it's one of Asimov's very rare treatments of alien creatures, and he does a fine job of it. One might expect this, given his intellect and imagination, and his trouble with crafting well-rounded humans; creating aliens who don't quite seem like real people, of course, is a natural consequence. (I understand that Asimov didn't work with aliens earlier in his career because his editor [John W. Campbell?] felt that SF should focus on the triumphs of humanity exclusively.)

Second, published only a few years after the first moon landing, Asimov clearly made use of new scientific data to craft a believable setting and culture on the moon. (With the flood of data being received from Mars this year, one wonders how long Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy will remain the definitive science-fictional work on that planet.)

The main problem with the book, as you might guess, is that the characterization seems forced (his characters always seem overly rational and deliberate, unless specifically contrived to fill the opposite niche), and the romance in the final part seems particularly unlikely (although not as ridiculous as Robert Heinlein's handling of such matters in his later work). But Asimov's appeal is always the ideas, and The Gods Themselves is not overly long and explores those ideas neatly and cleanly. On those grounds, it's certainly a successful book.

hits since 13 August 2000.

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