Sunday, February 3, 2013

Review of "The Gods Themselves" by Isaac Asimov

After what might be understated as active output in the 1950s, Isaac Asimov took a bit of a breather, waiting more than a decade to publish his next novel, The Gods Themselves.  Serialized in 1972, it sees Asimov taking his criticisms to heart (e.g. no aliens, no women, scientists as altruistic gods, etc.) and challenging himself to write a story which defied his storytelling to date, as well as experimenting with format.  That he dedicates the book to “mankind” only heightens the ambition. Though revealing a certain timidity working outside his zone of comfort, Asimov’s effort is admirable, the novel he produced deserving of the genre categorization if ever there were one.

The Gods Themselves is a difficult book to summarize from a story point of view.  Actually three novellas, the first Against stupidity… tells of a proud and demanding physicist’s accidental discovery that beings from a parallel universe are siphoning energy from Earth.  Like a circuit, energy is likewise transferred back to Earth, albeit in a different form.  The debate whether this exchange is safe for the planet, one ideology versus another, is something that can only have been taken from Asimov’s real world experience in the laboratory encountering scientists with conflicting agendas.  (The “scientists as altruistic gods” demon, slain.)

The second novella, …the gods themselves…, finds the reader as deep into Asimov’s imagination regarding alien life as they ever will.  Seeming to want to do it “properly”, the culture and lifestyle of the tri-sexed species is at first difficult, complicated, and esoteric.  Divided into lefts, rights, and middles, there are also Rationals, Emotionals, Parentals, with Soft Ones evolving into Hard Ones, etc. Predominantly the presentation of an alien culture, Asimov ties in the alien’s “positronic pump” to Earth’s perspective on the receiving end toward the conclusion of the novella, in turn explaining some of the mysterious events which conclude the first novella. (The “no aliens” demon, slain.)

The third and final novella, …contend in vain?, finds Asimov channeling the spirit of the era,  Heinlein and Silverberg applauding on the wings.  The setting is the moon, now a colonized sphere populated for more than 100 years by the descendants of Earth’s intelligentsia and artiste community.  It’s difficult to write more of the plot without revealing matters affecting the first sections, but suffice to say the mood on the moon is more than Bohemian.  Casual attitudes to sex and nudity exist, as does a semi-libertarian approach to scientific endeavor.  The latter playing a huge hand in the climax, Asimov resoling tension in knowledge-based style.  (Though Asmiov goes about describing women in juvenile fashion--conical breasts!!--the “no women/no sex” demon is slain.)

The themes of The Gods Themselves are strong.  Traditionalism and resistance to change feature heavily in the first and third sections, particularly from a scientific point of view.  As new technology and knowledge comes available, factions reveal themselves regarding how it best ought to be used—if at all.  Another interesting idea resulting from Asimov’s premise is the notion of trust and sharing.  A portion of the scientific community distrustful of the aliens sharing energy (for what purpose? they ask), barriers go up that resist the notion of trusting to the numbers and facts in place, due by in large to the fact they don’t know precisely how it works, only that it works.  How Asimov resolves this may not be related in the most literary of terms to the reader, but it certainly feels realistic given the egos and ideologies at stake in the scientific community.

But for as daring as Asimov is, his straightedge approach to science fiction remains.  The aliens, as eerily ether-like they may be, nonetheless come across as black and white, little nuance or counter-culture among them.  Secondly, elements of sexuality do exist, but are still delivered in largely juvenile male fashion.  The closing page of the book is particularly indicative of this, despite the objective attitude the Lunarites appear to have toward intimacy.  Asimov tries to be less prudish, but the effort feels forced and unnatural.  

In the end, The Gods Themselves will not be for every fan of sci-fi.  Hard science-fiction to the core, discussions among scientists and decision makers form the lion’s share of the text, plot developments slow and subtle in coming.  The alien section, while an interesting change in pace, is likewise convoluted until the reader understands the social structure and aims of the material/immaterial beings.  The theme of scientific transcendence overriding all, fans of Heinlein and Silverberg may enjoy the novel.  Lovers of Asimov’s Robot and Foundation series should be warned, however, that the novel is stand-alone and contains far less plot than they may be accustomed to. 


  1. I tried this last year, and it was going well until the second part. It felt disjointed then and somewhat nonesensical. No doubt I will try again sometime in the future!
    I enjoy Asimov's robot stories but not his Foundation stuff.

    1. I read somewhere that of all Asimov's ideas, the aliens in the ...the gods themselves... novella are his proudest creation. But you're right, it might require pen and paper to make 100% sense of... existence.

  2. I was somewhat torn by this novel... I think it's one of Asimov's better novels (I'm NOT an Asimov fan generally)... But, I think the Hugo it was awarded -- I can't believe that Effinger's What Entropy Means to Me lost that year -- was a case of, Asimov is a great and he deserves a few more awards rather than The Gods Themselves was the best book of the year.

  3. Agreed on the last sentence except the word "great". I would rather say integral to the development of sci-fi, and yes, for that he deserves the recognition he receives. It may be that the Hugo for The Gods Themselves was unofficially retroactive considering the award didn't exist when a lot of his most popular works were written?

    The Hugo, well, I used to put stock in it. Many of my early reviews use it as evidence a book is good. However, the more Hugo winners I read, the more I realize popularity, fandom, and established names play a role in the shelf the trophy ends up on each year. There are several Hugo winners I think sci-fi can be extremely proud of: Stand on Zanzibar, Rendezvous with Rama, Gateway, Lord of Light, Left Hand of Darkness, and others. But when I see that Harry Potter, Robert Sawyer's Hominids, McMaster-Bujold's Barrayar, and others have won, I start to doubt the award's integrity. By contrast, the SF Masterworks series, the BSFA, and the Nebula show more consistency in quality and style. Given the latter three agreed upon by critics or relevant members of the field, it comes as no surprise to learn the Hugo is largely voted by fans. Anyway, I digress before legions of Hugo voters descend on me.

    Thanks for the Effinger recommendation. I just read your review and I'm certainly intrigued! It sounds like something I would really enjoy.

  4. I've just finished The Gods Themselves today, and it was my first Asimov novel. I found it fine, but the idea that a whole novel is solely about "a device" wasn't very appealing to me. It seemed to me that the mini-plots in the three parts were only filler, while the only thing that mattered was the last few pages where a solution is discovered. Like you said, most of the novel's volume is in scientists arguing about the Proton Pump.

    But it's probably me, as I'm much more into characterisation and events more than the exploration of machines.

    I liked your review nonetheless, and I may read more Asimov in the future. Your blog is excellent.