Monday, 8 December 2014

Isaac Asimov - The Gods Themselves (1972)

The Story

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ASIMOV is a big name, but I don’t know how many people have read his work beyond the Foundation series and the copy of I Robot with Will Smith on the cover. Maybe a lot? But he rarely comes up in scifi conversations, unlike Clark and Dick.

The Gods Themselves was written a bit later in Asimov’s proverbial game. By the time it was published, Asimov was already a fabulously popular author who had quit academia to write full-time. The book itself was one of the first after a decade-long stint of writing primarily scientific nonfiction and definitely shows his disenchantment toward academic politics.

As with a lot of Asimov, the characters in this story are less important than the premise, not because he isn't interested in people, but more that he is interested in human society as a creature in itself. The book revolves around humanity’s accidental discovery of a new form of energy manipulation as a result of a tiiiny amount of interaction between two ‘parallel’* universes. 

*Note: In Asimov’s understanding, there is a difference between the idea of a ‘parallel’ versus an ‘alternate’ universe. A parallel universe implies that another universe (possibly with completely different universal laws i.e. life might not be carbon-based) is simply existing alongside your own universe, and that it is not necessarily connected in any way except in the way that it also just simply exists. In contrast, an alternate universe implies a connection between the space-time continuum of both. That is to say a world where Hitler didn’t exist versus one where he did, or where there are no shrimp. This is by far the more popular trope, because it is still recognisable within our sphere of experience and the other, simply, isn’t. An example of a parallel dimension could be the 'demon dimensions' in Buffy and Angel, or Lewis Carol's idea of Wonderland - places where shit is just generally different. 

This interaction between two parallel universes, both with radically different natural laws, is able to cause a shift in the subatomic structure of a certain kind of metal, making it increasingly radioactive. And BAM, just like that, suddenly humankind has an infinite source of energy.

The book is divided into three parts and set during a period in Earth’s not-to-distant future. Humankind, as a result of the infinite energy provided by the new 'Pump Technology', has solved most major world problems and has even set up a lunar space station as the initial step out into the stars.

The story hinges on the actions of three outcasts as they attempt to study the repercussions of Earth's new phase of technology. Peter Lamont, an Earthman, is searching for answers to how Pump Technology was 'really' invented. A Lunarite called Selene finds herself entwined in the political manoeuvrings between Earth and the newly independent Lunar Station. And finally, there is Dua, an enigmatic creature in the dying parallel universe who discovers a horrific secret.

The Tasty Bit

One of my favourite things about a great scifi story is that it’s not necessary to recreate Star Wars for it to be a masterpiece. Aliens, space travel and Jetson-like gadgets are sort of like dragons and elves, a lot of the best fantasy doesn't have it. 

In The Gods Themselves, Asimov creates a single new technology, an infinite power source. It’s a fantastically useful technology of course – but it’s still just the one. He then sends the new tech into his world (technologically similar to our own) and watches as it sets the entire story of humankind on its ear.

One of the most fascinating things about technological progress of humankind is that all it takes is one useful thing and the entire world – society, economy, political reality – everything changes. We’ve made all kinds of efficient adaptations to it, but we are still using the steam engine to get power for our cities, iPads, cars and air conditioners to this very day.

And no one can ever foresee how far and fast the world will move in these situations. Thus, it’s great to see Asimov’s characters struggling to find new ways to even think about the repercussions of the new technology. They have absolutely no idea, and neither do I so it’s a great way to follow a highly complex story.


My one problem with Asimov is that he can be a bit dry. His characters are very human, but a bit lacking in emotional reactions. His stories aren’t really about how people deal with each other. But frankly that’s fine because he makes up for it in unique story lines and bloody interesting puzzles.

He is also the best sciencesplainer that I’ve ever come across. It may be pseudoscience but I’m fairly sure I know exactly what he’s trying to say, and that's really rare 'cause my maths and science skills are nil. 

After hating his Foundation series, it was a massive relief for me to fall back into my general adoration for the man with The Gods Themselves.

The book has some rough edges, but is well worth a read.

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