The Gods Themselves is a popular, successful work in Asimov’s career and it is famous for a couple of things: it won the important awards, it was a return to fiction for Asimov after a 15 year drought, and it has aliens and sex, which always have been curiously absent from his work. It’s also Asimov’s personal favourite science fiction novel.
Right from the bat this novel feels inspired, driven by an energy that isn’t always present in Asimov’s later work. He presents us an entertaining little fictional history of a scientific achievement that changed the world. It’s not a bad start, and for staid, plain Asimov it is downright frivolous. There is some sarcasm over mediocre scientists, some creative cutting and pasting of chapter-fragments and jumping around between times and characters. And these characters, the insecure Dr. Hallam and fiery Dr. Lamont, are colourfully sketched out.
There is a reason that the story is rather heavy on the physics. The origin of this novel is attributed to a conversation that Asimov had with fellow writer Robert Silverberg. Silverberg mentioned an isotope in one of his stories – plutonium-186 – and Asimov protested that such an isotope could not exist in our universe. Silverberg reacted that Asimov should write a story about it and that got him thinking about the kind of universe in which such an isotope would exist, what the natural laws of that universe would have to be, and what it would be to live in it. And all this lead to a story that is concerned with physics on the scale of the universe and with the shaping, narratively, of an alien world.
So the story concerns the invention of miraculous free energy by a so-called Electron Pump that exchanges matter with another invisible universe. But there is no such thing as a free lunch and Dr. Lamont is the sceptical scientist who warns that the Pump could change the basic natural laws of our universe, and the Sun might even explode suddenly. However, politicians and scientists are blinded by self-interest. Reading this in 2022, Lamont’s call to “stop the Pumps!” resonates with real world events.
The real fun begins in the middle part when we jump over to the other universe and see life from the aliens’ point of view. It’s like a little puzzle box where you have to read on to discover their physical shapes and odd family life. Going in, it was a bit jarring to leave the emotional immersion behind of following the human characters and to embark on the more analytical exercise of understanding the aliens. Asimov rides a fine line between presenting totally alien creatures and making them just human enough to follow their personal quirks and relationship problems. This section is rather slow going but has a strong ending.
While that middle part is a unique, unusual piece of writing that almost every sci-fi fan will appreciate, the novel as a whole had some problems for me. For starters, cutting up the novel into three novellas didn’t work for me. Restarting the narrative with every novella made it hard to get into the flow of the story. And the main drama of the Electron Pump seemed to get lost in new worldbuilding, twice.
In addition, Asimov did things in the final part that really annoyed me. The first is a general lack of tension. The universe is about to explode but we are treated with page after page of tourist destinations, political discussions and philosophising while having picnics. Secondly, Asimov is chasing his sexual fantasies. Let’s visit the moon, where the girls all look very young because of low gravity and their breasts don’t sag, and they are for looking at, and the girls prance about like gazelles in the low gravity, and oh isn’t it strange how Earthers wear clothes? Let’s take them off and let those bouncy breasts get some air. Oh there is the 50 year old Earth man I bet this young woman is going to have sex with him, she may look 18 because of low gravity but is older inside. Asimov did the same but worse in Foundation and Earth in 1986, so I see that in 1972 he was already writing the same way.
It doesn’t gel into a good whole, good stuff along the way is dropped and the story fizzles out in a long boring third part. I can’t believe that this won so many awards.