The Gods Themselves
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Cover of first edition (hardcover)
|Cover artist||David November|
|Genre||Science fiction novel|
|Media type||Print (Hardcover & Paperback)|
The book is divided into three main parts, originally published in Galaxy Magazine and Worlds of If as three consecutive stories. The first chapter of the first part of the book is numbered Chapter 6 because the beginning of chapter 6 is somewhat of an introduction to the real Chapter 1, which begins "It had happened thirty years before." Thereafter, most of the series of chapters 1–5 end with a part of chapter 6. After Chapter 5, Chapter 6 concludes and moves to Chapter 7.
The main plotline is a project by aliens who inhabit a parallel universe (the para-Universe) with different physical laws from this one. By exchanging matter with Earth, they seek to exploit these differences in physical laws. The exchange of matter provides an alternative source of energy in their dying Universe. However, the exchange of physical laws will have the ultimate result of turning the Earth's Sun into a supernova, and possibly even turning a large part of the Milky Way into a quasar which, in turn, provides more energy for the para-Universe.
First part: Against Stupidity...
The first part takes place on Earth, where scientist Frederick Hallam discovers that a container's contents have been altered. He initially accuses a colleague of tampering with his sample, but eventually finds that the sample, originally tungsten, has been transformed into plutonium 186—an isotope that cannot occur naturally in our universe. As this is investigated, Hallam suggests (correctly) that the matter has been exchanged by beings in a parallel universe; this leads to the development of a cheap, clean, and apparently endless source of energy: the "Electron Pump", which transfers matter between our universe (where plutonium 186 decays into tungsten 186) and a parallel one governed by slightly different physical laws (where tungsten 186 turns into plutonium 186), yielding a nuclear reaction in the process. The development process grants Hallam high position in public opinion; winning him power, position, and a Nobel Prize.
Physicist Lamont, while writing a history of the Pump, comes to believe that the impetus of the Pump was the effort of the extraterrestrial "para-men"; but Hallam is infuriated by the suggestion that his role is secondary, and destroys Lamont's career. Lamont enlists the help of Bronowski, a linguist known for translating the Etruscan language, to prove his claim by analyzing the para-men's communications. As Bronowski works, Lamont discovers that the Pump increases the strong nuclear force inside the sun, and thus threatens both universes by supernova of Earth's sun and the cooling of that in the parallel universe. Later, Bronowski receives an acknowledgment that the Pump may be dangerous. Lamont attempts to demonstrate this to a politician and several members of the scientific community, but they refuse his request. Lamont decides to tell the para-men that the Earth-side shall desist use of the Pump; but Bronowski reveals that they have been in contact not with the other side's authorities, but with dissidents unable to stop the Pump on their side.
Second part: ...The Gods Themselves...
The second part takes place in the parallel universe, whose inhabitants are divided into dominant "hard ones" and subject "soft ones", whereof the latter have three sexes with fixed roles for each sex:
- Rationals (or "lefts") are the logical and scientific sex; identified with masculine pronouns and producing a form of sperm.
- Emotionals (or "mids") are the intuitive sex; identified with the feminine pronouns and provide the energy needed for reproduction.
- Parentals (or "rights") bear and raise the offspring, but are identified with masculine pronouns.
All three 'genders' are embedded in sexual and social norms of expected and acceptable behavior. All three live by photosynthesis; whereas sexual intercourse is accomplished by bodily collapse into a single pool (known as 'melting'). Rationals and Parentals can do this independently; but in the presence of an Emotional, the "melt" becomes total, which causes orgasm but also results in unconsciousness and memory loss. Only during such a total "melt" can the Rational "impregnate" the Parental, with the Emotional providing the energy. The hard ones regulate much of soft one society, as by allocating one of each sex to a mating group, called a "triad", and acting as mentors to the Rationals. Little is shown of "hard one" society; wherefore the Emotional Dua, the protagonist of this section of the book, suspects that the "hard ones" are a dying race, retaining the "soft ones" as a replacement for their absent children. This is dismissed by Odeen, the Rational of Dua's triad, who having the most contact with the "hard ones", has heard the "hard ones" speak of a new "hard one" called "Estwald", accounted of exceptional intelligence.
Dua is an oddball Emotional who exhibits traits normally associated with Rationals, resulting in the nickname "left-em". By engaging in teachings from Odeen, she also discovers the supernova problem that Lamont uncovered in the first section; outraged that the Pump is allowed to operate, she attempts to halt it; but cannot persuade her own species to abandon the Pump, given that their own sun and all the other stars in their universe can no longer provide the energy necessary to reproduction; whereas the destruction of Earth's sun might provide a more reliable source of energy.
Driven by an innate desire to procreate, Tritt, the "Parental" of the triad, at first asks Odeen to persuade Dua to facilitate the production of their third child. When this fails, Tritt steals an energy-battery from the Pump and rigs it to feed Dua, which stimulates the total melt resulting in conception. Dua discovers this betrayal and escapes to the caves of the hard ones, where she transmits the messages received by Lamont. This effort nearly exhausts her mortally; whereupon she is found by her triad. Here, it is revealed that each melt, in addition to causing reproduction, briefly creates a hard one (the fully-mature form of the species), which gradually becomes the organism's permanent state. Odeen convinces Dua that the hard one they will become will have influence with the hard ones to stop the Pump; but during their final metamorphosis, Dua realizes (too late to prevent irreversible union) that 'Estwald', the Pump's creator, is her own triad's 'hard' form.
Third part: ...Contend in Vain?
The third part of the novel takes place on the Moon, centering on a cynical middle-aged physicist named Denison, briefly introduced in Part 1 as the colleague and rival of Hallam whose snide remark drove Hallam to develop the Pump. Denison, independently of Lamont, deduced the danger in the Electron Pump, and to counteract it, taps into a third parallel universe occupying in a pre-big bang state (called 'cosmic egg' or 'cosmeg'), where physical laws are opposite to those of Dua's universe. The exchange with the second parallel universe both produces more energy at little or no cost, and balances the changes resulting of the Electron Pump, resulting in a return to equilibrium. Denison is helped by a Lunarian tourist guide named Selene Lindstrom, secretly an Intuitionist (a genetically engineered human with superhuman intuition). In the end, Selene and Denison also foil a plot to use the new power source to move the moon out of orbit; and Selene, having received permission to produce a second child, requests Denison to become its father.
Asimov's relationship to the story
In a letter of February 12, 1982, Asimov identified this as his favorite science fiction novel. Asimov's short story "Gold", one of the last he wrote in his life, describes the efforts of fictional computer animators to create a "compu-drama" from the novel's second section.
Asimov took the names of the immature aliens—Odeen, Dua, and Tritt—from the words One, Two, and Three in the language of his native Russia. (The original forms are odin, dva and tri).
Asimov's inspiration for the title of the book, and its three sections, was a quotation from the play The Maid of Orleans by Friedrich Schiller: "Mit der Dummheit kämpfen Götter selbst vergebens.", "Against stupidity the gods themselves contend in vain" (quoted in the book itself).
Asimov describes a conversation in January 1971 when Robert Silverberg had to refer to an isotope—just an arbitrary one—as an example. Silverberg said "plutonium-186". "There is no such isotope", said Asimov, "and such a one can't exist either". "So, what?", said Silverberg. Later Asimov figured out under what conditions plutonium-186 could exist, and what complications and consequences it might imply. Asimov reasoned that it must belong to another universe with other physical laws; specifically, different nuclear forces necessary to allow a Pu-186 nucleus to hold itself together. He wrote down these ideas, which gradually became the novel.
In his autobiography, Asimov stated that the novel, especially the second section, was the "biggest and most effective over-my-head writing [that I] ever produced".
- "1972 Award Winners & Nominees". Worlds Without End. Retrieved 2009-09-02.
- "1973 Award Winners & Nominees". Worlds Without End. Retrieved 2009-09-02.
- "Bibliography: The Gods Themselves". Retrieved 2011-10-29.
- "Yours, Isaac Asimov" page 225
- I. Asimov: A Memoir.. Isaac Asimov. Bantam Books. 1995. p. 251. ISBN 0-553-56997-X
- Review: The Gods Themselves by Isaac Asimov, We Read Science Fiction, October 18, 2007
- The Gods Themselves