THE GODS THEMSELVES – Isaac Asimov (1972)

The Gods ThemselvesFrom 1958 tot 1972 Asimov did not write science fiction, so The Gods Themselves was a sort of comeback, and it went on to win the Hugo, Locus & Nebula. It’s heralded as “His single finest creation” by the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. In 1982 Asimov himself expressed this to be his favorite science fiction novel. High praise all around.

A story in three very different parts, it is set in 2100, and deals with a possible unbalancing of the cosmos because of the Electron Pump – new technology that delivers clean, abundant energy. This unbalance might obliterate Earth.

The first part deals with the science behind it, and with the social problems inherent in doing science: it is a critique of ego before truth, and the petty competition between men. The second part deals with aliens – the first time ever Asimov wrote about aliens – in a parallel universe, aliens that are responsible for the Electron Pump. The third part is set on the moon, and is about scheming to resolve the problem.

It is a visibly constructed story: Ken MacLeod even speaks of “dialectics” in the pompous introduction to my 2012 edition, and indeed, as a construction it certainly has a charm, and Asimov’s craft is undeniable. Yet at the same time it sucks a bit of life out of it too. Wooden characters obviously don’t help that, especially not as most of the story is told through dialogue.

The scientific ideas behind The Gods Themselves are very interesting, hats of to Asimov for sure. Generally, the book managed to engage me, wanting to know more & more. Still, that does not mean all of Asimov’s ideas were fully successful: there were quite some important choices that took me out of it too. While the first part with its critique of science certainly has much truth in it, lots of the grown up men in it act so much like children it’s hard to even believe those parts. Add to that the fact there never is a sense of urgency to rescue the Earth – if it would have been destroyed, I wouldn’t have cared one bit.

The second part, with an honorable attempt to write truly alien aliens, results in an end product of alien anatomy & reproduction that is totally unbelievable – even in another universe with other laws of physics. It’s fun discovering how it all works, but at the end I was left unimpressed. On top of that, the aliens are – all surface level differences aside – basically human in their psychology, hinging on dichotomies between emotion and ratio, and that gives us caricature rather than believable characters.

The third part is overall enjoyable, but suffers from too much stress on nudity without any clear inner necessity. Maybe Asimov wanted to stress social shifts on the moon: the result of less gravity on aging seems to give less shame about one’s body? Something like that? Obviously, the sixties were just over, and a man can dream, but it’s a bit awkward today. Add to that a rushed ending, and the fact that the motivations of Neville – the antagonist of sorts – are simply batshit crazy.

It’s also of note that Asimov again taps lightly into the paranormal with the notion of Intuitionism. His choice was a sign of the times obviously, but it’s underdeveloped, even with the quick attempt at genetic justification. The fact that Selene seems to be an Intuitionist only on matters that deal with physics makes it even stranger.


The title comes from a quote from a Friedrich Schiller play: “Against stupidity the gods themselves contend in vain”, and it is a clear indication of what Asimov wanted to do with this book: issue a warning against human vanity & stupidity. The central theme – humanity’s destructive & myopic greed for energy – resonates strongly today in this age of climate change. Seen in that light, the book has not aged a day – on the contrary, it has only grown more potent.

The Gods Themselves is necessary reading for any serious Asimov fan: the creative pluses outweigh the negatives I talked about, and the prose doesn’t get in the way. It’s also recommended to anyone with an interest in vintage science fiction. Still, it lacks the awe and the scope of the Foundation trilogy, and as such it lacks a bit of oomph. Dated a bit, yes, but still very readable. Nonetheless, I have to be honest, and warn you that it is only of minor interest for those that crave thrilling sci fi that pushes all of today’s buttons.

 


Consult the author index for all my other reviews, or my favorite lists.

55 responses to “THE GODS THEMSELVES – Isaac Asimov (1972)

  1. there never is a sense of urgency to rescue the Earth – if it would have been destroyed, I wouldn’t have cared one bit

    An Isaac Asimov novel that lacks in emotional engagement? Good heavens!

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Beyond his short stories and his Foundation trilogy (heavens save us from the crapshoot that that series turned into), I have not found that I’ve enjoyed Asimov’s books. I think he was a short story writer, period.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Whisper it, but I only really think the first one and a half Foundation books are any good. It gets very…laissez-faire after that, Mule or no Mule.

      The time travel one was great, though. The End of Eternity, was it called? Loved that. And, yeah, his short stories are marvellous.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Yes, I liked The End of Eternity a lot too. I reviewed it 4 years ago: https://schicksalgemeinschaft.wordpress.com/2016/08/01/the-end-of-eternity-isaac-asimov-1955/

        As for Foundation, as I wrote above, I liked 1 to 5, but maybe that was due to my naivete. I remember being awed by 1 to 3, and the narrative in 4-5 struck a chord with me because of its interconnected holistic conception of the universe, in essence a kind of ultimate thinking through of what it means to be ecologically embedded as a living being. The prequels 6-7 were trite indeed.

        I plan to reread & review 1-5 eventually, in a few years, after I finish my rereading of the Dune series. Very curious what I’ll think of them after hundreds of other SF books.

        Liked by 2 people

        • I read Foundation quite early in my Aismov — because y’would, wouldn’t you? — and loved the first one. But as the second wore on and then third became increasingly tedious I found my attention wavering. Not sure I even finished 5, and definitely haven’t read 7. I find him great in small explorations of a universe, but it’s almost as if the nature of his scrutiny can’t be sustained over more than a couple of books. Case in point, The Caves of Steel is wonderful, The Naked Sun runs out of ideas about halfway through, and the third one is so pointless I’ve forgotten its title.

          I’ve never read Dune; been meaning to for years, but my own mystery blog keeps me pretty occupied reading-wise. One of these days…

          Liked by 3 people

    • Bookstooge, read my replies to JJ first. I’ll add to those that I have not really enjoyed Caves of Steel or I, Robot either. So for me it’s Foundation + End Of Eternity. But I haven’t read that much by him, and I do plan to read Pebble in the Sky someday.

      As for his short stories, I’ve read a few over the years, can’t fault them, but I’m simply not much of a short story guy.

      Liked by 2 people

      • *heads off to read comments above*

        I don’t like short stories on their own. But I LOVE books of short stories for some reason. It’s the only way I managed to read so much Clarke and Asimov. But if the format doesn’t work for you, then yeah, it isn’t worth forcing it down your own throat 😀

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Hey Bormgans, have you thought about deepening your nesting for comments? I can’t hit reply to you or JJ and I’d love to chime in. So I’ll add all my comments to you two here:

    B: I really do wonder what you’d think of them now. The tone is so different and you can tell they were written at a different period of his life. I feel like the Caves of Steel feel more into line with the Foundation trilogy, while the rest of the Lija Bailey series was more like Foundation 4 and 5, in terms of tone and character style.
    As for I, Robot, you are talking about the short story collection by that name, right? After the debacle of that bloody movie with Will Smith (the movie was just fine, but stealing the name was NOT), I know longer take for granted that people are talking about the short story collection.

    JJ: You NEED to read Dune. While I won’t recommend the rest of the Dune Chronicles (unless you love Dune beyond 5stars), the first book is Herbert’s best work and it works well as a standalone. No commitment to the rest of the series.
    And I concur wholeheartely with your assessment of Asimov. He was a short story guy and it showed whenever he tried to write a series. Even his foundation trilogy shows that in terms of it starting out as vignettes and moving towards a full novel in the 3rd book.

    Liked by 3 people

    • I’ve enabled nesting up to 5. It was 3 before. How’s that on your site? I don’t like too much nesting because it leads to replies of lines with 2 words each only, but it seems 5 is okay. Never experienced the need though: I just replied to the reply above, as such the reply got listed below anyhow so. But maybe the person I wanted to reply to didn’t get a notification in that case, now that I think of it.

      As for 4&5 – the different tone was clear to me back then already. I was talking about the collection, yes. Maybe I was too harsh to say I didn’t like it. It was more that it was a bit disappointing, and it resulted in me not being interested in the rest of the robot stories. Maybe I should give them a go again… Any tips?

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’ve nested up to 10 replies on my site. That way if someone else wants to jump in the conversation, they can. But the main reason is the notification thingy.

        Honestly, if you didn’t care for the I, robot collection, not sure what else to say. That tends to be one of the “easy” ones I lob out first 😀 I think he has 2 or 3 collections where he’s put together a lot of what he’s written, titled The Complete Stories, Vols 1 and 2.

        But once again, if Robot didn’t work for you, I’d be leery of spending much more time on his short stories…

        Liked by 1 person

        • Yes, aside from rereading Foundation 1-5, I think Pebble In The Sky will be the final Asimov book I’ll read. After that, I think I’ll have a pretty good grip on him as an author to not want more.

          Liked by 1 person

    • Dune is on my TBR, and I will get there — its received a great many recommendations over the years — but I’m posting three times a week on my site and sometimes have trouble keeping pace with the necessary reading for that 🙂

      And, for my money, Clarke is a far better writer than Asimov…

      Liked by 2 people

      • I liked Clarke’s collection “More than One Universe” but after that, I couldn’t stand his novels.

        And I hear you about having a long tbr. I think my current status is anything new to the tbr is going to have to wait about 2 years 😀

        Liked by 1 person

        • Are you so strict about new purchase/loans, or was that just a metaphor?

          Liked by 1 person

          • I have a strict reading rotation. Plus, I now wait for a series to be finished before even starting it. And throw in a lot of re-reads, I have so many books waiting that that 2 years is a literal thing.

            Of course, there are always exceptions to those rules, but yeah, for the most part, anything I add now won’t be gotten to for quite some time (2 years was based on how many books I read in a year and how big my tbr is on my kindle and in my calibre library)

            Liked by 1 person

            • Let me keep it short: why?

              (And I don’t mean the series thing, I get that, pretty smart rule.)

              Liked by 1 person

              • A couple of reasons. The first and foremost is because I have found that without having to choose between 15-20 books, but having an order to read them all in, that I have avoided a reading slump since before 2016. It is too easy to be overwhelmed in this age of limitless books.
                2nd reason is to keep my tbr at a manageable level.
                3rd reason is to make sure I actually read all the books on my tbr. Instead of favoring a series or ignoring one book to languish, I know that I will eventually get to Book X.

                Finally, it just makes my life easier to click on the next collection on my kindle instead of what I “feel” like. My feelings change by the hour, so choosing that way simply doesn’t work for me.

                If you want to see HOW it works, here’s a post from ’17:
                https://bookstooge.wordpress.com/2017/09/16/book-tag-the-tbr-tag/

                Liked by 1 person

              • Ha, after I’ve read a book, I often ‘loose’ half an hour of my time going through my TBR looking for what to read next. Mood is important to me in that respect, but if you read as many books as you do, I guess it becomes less of a factor.

                But the downside is that there are books on my TBR that I will probably/surely never read, like you talk about in your post. Once in a few years I do a culling, and take those that didn’t make it to the second hand shop. I used to be an impulse buyer when I finished a fantastic book by an author, and instantly got a few more by him/her – that works much better for music than for books, I’ve learned over the years. I don’t do that anymore, and as a result my TBR doesn’t grow that much – but because of my earlier behavior, it does have a backlog of about 130 titles – 50 of which I guess I’ll never read.

                Liked by 1 person

              • Mood used to be important to me, until I realized it was hindering me more than enhancing anything.

                And to be sure, my system is not going to work for the majority of people. for a variety of reasons…

                Liked by 1 person

      • I know the feeling, but I stopped caring about my posting ratio. Very liberating, I have to say.

        Haven’t read much Clarke. I liked Rama, but was disapointed by Childhood’s End.

        Like

        • If I don’t keep to a schedule, I won’t do it at all — I know me too well 🙂 And I genuinely enjoy posting three times a week, because it turns out I think about this stuff a lot.

          I love Clarke. The only novel of his I couldn’t get on with was A Fall of Moondust. Everything else — and I don’t include the “co-written” Rama sequels, etc, only the stuff he did alone — has been a delight. Hell, I even found something to enjoy in 2061 and 3001…

          Liked by 1 person

          • For sure, writing and posting is nice, it has become an integral, crucial part of my reading. But I didn’t like the self-imposed stress, so now I just go with the flow. The net result is about the same amount of posts a year, so there’s even no loss there.

            What would be your favorite Clarke?

            Like

            • As pure novels, Rama, 2001, and especially The Fountains of Paradise. For the ideas of the larger world — which, being Clarke, often get swept past but remain fascinating possibilities — Imperial Earth takes some beating, and the space stuff in The Hammer of God is superb. The world building of The City and the Stars is far too intricate, but it’s fascinating for the thought that has gone into it, and Dolphin Island is…weird enough to be enjoyable on a visceral level 😁

              Liked by 1 person

  4. This is another of the “classics” I read several decades ago, so I’m now unable to recall the finer details, although the core concept is surprisingly still fresh in my mind. At the time I remember enjoying it but not as much as the Foundation books, and considering that my attempt at re-reading Foundation, a couple of years ago, failed miserably because of my changed outlook and tastes, I wonder how this one would fare now…

    Thanks for sharing! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I struggled with attempts to revisit Asimov in recent years, largely in view of your justifiable critique of his wooden characters. I do like ideas-based SF, but may stick to more recent writers like Priest rather than struggle through rereads of old Isaac. I did enjoy some of his Black Widower stories from way back when, though.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. I think I was too old to be impressed by Foundation – I found it dry and unconvincing, and don’t get me started on the sequels to the trilogy 😉 So I guess I won’t be reading this one! 😉
    Cool review, tho – I like how you’re ruthlessly exact in your dissection, Asimov should have been proud! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks! Ruthlessly exact – that has a nice ring to it.

      For reference: I must have been 30 when I read Foundation, but it was the first thing I read after Anathem and Banks started my interest in sci fi books, so my frame of reference was pretty small.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Asimov as a writer is mediocre at best – but his ideas were and are absolutely worth exploring. While I found Foundation a bit simplistic, it proved an intriguing read which formed a basis to some cool discussions. While I’m no longer so lenient when it comes to bad writing, I still admire the fact that he came up with his ideas back in the ’50s.
        I just wish Lem’s prose was better known 😉

        Liked by 1 person

        • I haven’t read Lem. I do have a copy of Solaris though. Do you know if the translations do justice to his prose? (Not that I can remedy that, I’ll have to read the English anyway.)

          Liked by 1 person

          • Solaris is his most accessible novel, I guess. Unfortunately, I have no experience with his translations, but I’m pretty sure there were also Dutch, French and other – if English has a bad rep, that is 😉 Rest assured, though, the book has not much in common with the Hollywood movie that was supposed to be its adaptation 😂

            Liked by 1 person

            • I have no idea about the English translation’s reputation. It’s just as you specifically talked about his prose, I thought about it.

              I generally read the English translation, even if a Dutch one is available. Generally, there’s more budget for the English ones as that market is much bigger, and the quality seems to be better as a result. Sometimes I also think English is a more versatile language to do translations in, but that’s a tricky debate. I’m also not sure how much the fact that I generally read English prose influences that sentiment – I do enjoy a few Duch prose stylist masters, so it’s not that I do not enjoy reading in Dutch, but there’s simply less quality writing in it: basic numbers will do that to you: 21 million vs. 424 million native speakers.

              Liked by 1 person

              • Yeah, and I do the same with translations from other languages – in Poland we used to have absolute artists in translation, especially for Spanish (particularly South American) and Slavic languages. But since ’90s the quality just went down and through the bottom. So it’s definitely safer to pick up an English translation as a result 😉

                I admire Lem for a bunch of reasons; mostly I think for the fact that he is able to combine mind-blowing ideas with solid storytelling and characters’ development and a rather unflinching view of human nature.

                Liked by 1 person

            • I’m reading Solaris atm. Based on what I’ve read so far, I’ll read more of him. What other Lem would you recommend?

              Liked by 1 person

            • I’ve just put my Solaris review up!

              Liked by 1 person

  7. Hey Bormgans, I’m going to ask you to refrain from any more pro-communist talk on the Gulag post.

    If you’d like to discuss things without the heat of emotion, shoot me an email at bookstoogeatgmaildotcom. Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Pingback: SOLARIS – Stanisław Lem (1961) | Weighing a pig doesn't fatten it.

  9. Pingback: Pixel Scroll 7/10/20 Definitely Worried I Had Lost The Plot | File 770

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