From 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.