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.