Books That Shaped Me: The Gods Themselves by Isaac Asimov
I’ve been informally re-visiting books I read decades ago. It’s interesting to look at them with eyes 2-3-even 4 decades down the road. Since I’ve started this archive-repository-chronicle, this seems to be the best place to formally memorialze these reflections. If you’ve read any of these, I’d love to hear your thoughts. If any are new to you, I’d love to hear about that too.
The year is 2100 A.D….
And Man no longer stands alone in the universe.
Now there are other worlds, other living beings. Alien beings who mate in threes and live on pure energy. New breeds of humans who have created their own environment and freed themselves from every social and sexual taboo.
Yes, it is a future of new worlds, ever-changing worlds. And yet among them there is still Earth.
Earth, where Man still strives to be the best. To advance himself beyond all other beings and their worlds. And this final, glorious step in mankind’s technical progress has been achieved: the discovery of an unlimited, non-polluting energy source.
But what seems to be progress may, in reality, end in complete tragedy.
Earth’s unlimited energy source is about to trigger unlimited destruction—and the end of a universe.
The TL:DR of the central plot is this: A parallel universe initiates a swap of tungsten that ends up providing Earth with unlimited free energy. It is posited that in fact this energy is adding more mass to the sun at the subatomic level which will cause it to blow up sooner rather than later. This idea is dismissed as laughable.
This book came out in 1972, not sure when I bought it, but I believe I was in high school, so maybe circa ‘78-79? My memories of linear time are fuzzy at best, I know something significant led to the purchase, another book I read probably, but I’m not sure. Anyway, I tried to read it then and could not for the life of me get past the bit about “tungsten” in the beginning.
As an aside I should mention that if I was in high school, my career plans at the time were “nuclear physicist.” I cringe just thinking about it. I was a good student and expected to do important things, so I chose something that sounded impressive…
The fact that I couldn’t make heads or tails of the hows and whys of the tungsten exchange from the parallel universe leading to unlimited energy—despite Asimov’s thorough explanation— and my distaste for my first physics class, was all the indication I needed that my career choice was bullshit. Outwardly I persisted in the fiction, for a time, then just quietly dropped it. It’s still in one of my high school yearbooks though, testament to a teenager’s desire to please the adults.
Truth be told, if it wasn’t for the audio book, I doubt if I could have made it past that section as a 50-something adult! It’s not the writing, it’s what it always was—a hardy disinterest in the minutiae of scientific reality.
I think that same disinterest can be applied to explain why in the book when confronted with even the slightest possibility of total annihilation, the powers that be were just meh. They were enjoying the first stretch of peace in modern times. Free unlimited energy changed the world in significant ways, so much so that no one wanted to look seriously at any downsides. Like me, the average Joes, and lawmakers glossed over the hows—which didn’t make sense in any tangible way—and skipped to the good parts. (While I technically didn’t skip to the good parts, I was certainly paying less attention than I could have.)
I much preferred the bits with human interaction and pathos—the mediocre Hallam’s rise being an accident of fate, dissenting voices drowned by the exhilaration of discovery and desire for the elusive free energy.
This book was very much a three-in-one narrative. Each section standing on it’s own, but connected to each other. While the first section was necessary as the discovery and implementation, to me the second section was most interesting.
Here we learned of the race of beings in the parallel universe. The one’s who initiated the swapping of tungsten—the ones who ultimately know they are purposefully destroying a universe.
They mate in threes. As individuals: Rational, Emotional, Parental, they are physically different from humans, but they have the same desires: to learn, to love, to procreate. They can conform, and rebel. They can fight and reconcile. And most of all, since their universe is dying, they have a driving need to survive.
I doubt humanity will live until this universe dies, but if it does, if faced with the same choice, would we make it? I think so.
The third section lands us twenty years after the discovery. Earth has colonized the moon. Those born to the moon, have never visited Earth. There is friction—the moon is not independent and that rankles. A self-trained physicist has come to an independent conclusion that this free energy everyone loves comes with a great price. He emigrates to the moon, is allowed to run his own experiments, which bear fruit. He discovers another universe—or rather an egg of one—an exchange of energy to it will somehow mitigate the damage to our own universe with the added bonus of causing a big bang, potentially creating life in it when it’s critical point is reached.
The physics of it went way, way over my head—again. I was more struck by the social implications of colonization: The resentment of Earth, even as earth people seeded the new colony. The new culture defined by the planetary separation all the way down to the food—it’s expensive to transport therefore pasty sludge is not only sufficient but welcomed. The power imbalance inherent in colonization. The inability to self-rule.
Interesting how power imbalances always, always cause resentment.
Interesting how things that are supposed to unite us always manage to separate. Or rather, humans always find a reason.
It was also a love story—age gap, almost interspecies as those born and raised on the moon are physically different than those born on earth. Believable, as humans can find ways to connect, if we don’t see our differences as insurmountable.
Funnily enough, the Lunarites devise a plan to blow the moon out of the earth’s orbit, to finally free themselves of earth’s tyranny. I can’t help but wonder if Space 1999 was inspired by this.
“There are no happy endings in history. Only crisis points that passed.”
This line not only struck me as true, but reminds me that things don’t have to end tidily. Having passed it’s crisis point, the book ends, quietly.
Although I didn’t read it back then, I wanted to include The Gods Themselves in this series because my aborted attempt to read it had a ripple effect. It defined me as a reader. Soley because of it I steered away from hard science fiction.
Fast forward forty years and I’d forgotten about this book and Asimov in particular until Apple+ presented Foundation. Watching the show made me curious. Could I read the book? As I mentioned I was under the impression that Asimov was hard to read, that hard science fiction wasn’t for me. I took a chance, picked it up—and liked it. Imagine my surprise. I like his writing and I want to read more.
In hindsight, I read the book when I needed to, when I was ready. I don’t know if I would have gotten out of it everything that I did had I read it in my teens. It’s not just the world that’s changed, but I did too. Back then it would have been easy to believe in free energy. To believe that’s where our focus should be, that its our future.
And while that may still be true, regardless of current lip service, the raging violent capitalism of today just won’t allow it. I have no doubt that if that actually happened, everyone involved in such a project would have died in their sleep, the samples left to explode. News reports of “terrorist” explosions as the para-universe continued to send their gifts of tungsten until they finally gave up and found another species willing to accept gifts at the hands of strangers. The world has changed in a way that some science fiction just isn’t believable anymore, regardless of how factual the science.
That may be too pessimistic. If it is, I’ll leave you with Asimov’s dedication:
“To Mankind. And the hope that the war against folly may someday be won, after all.”
If you’re interested, you can find the book here (and I’ll make a few cents off the transaction): The Gods Themselves
Until next time,
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