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. Frederick Hallam, a scientist of limited ability but with a fiercely protective ego, discovers that an old container's contents seem to have been altered. He initially accuses a colleague of tampering with his sample, and gets a snide remark in return. Hallam responds with a furious effort and eventually finds that the sample, originally tungsten, has been transformed into something that turns out to be plutonium 186—an isotope that cannot occur naturally in our universe. As this is investigated, Hallam makes the crucial suggestion that the matter has been swapped by beings in a parallel universe. This turns out to be correct and leads to the development of a cheap, clean, and apparently endless source of energy: the "Electron Pump", which trades 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 inextricably ties Hallam to the Pump in the minds of the people, vaulting him into an incredibly high position in public opinion and winning him power, position, and a Nobel Prize to boot.
An idealistic young physicist, Lamont, while writing a history of the Pump, comes into conflict with Hallam and begins to question the official history of its discovery. Lamont is convinced that the development of the Pump was mainly due to the "para-men", who he believes are more intelligent; he notes the instructions they had sent early in the project (although only the diagrams, and not the linguistic parts, had been comprehensible). Hallam is infuriated by the suggestion that his role is secondary, and destroys Lamont's career. Lamont enlists the help of Bronowski, a linguist who had won renown for translating the Etruscan language and is looking for a new challenge. As Bronowski works on the para-men's old messages, Lamont discovers that the Pump is in fact creating a dangerous situation that could cause the Sun to become a supernova (the pump increases the strong nuclear force inside the sun, causing the sun to fuse its hydrogen fuel more rapidly). This would, incidentally, also doom the para-world by accelerating the cooling of its own sun. Bronowski seems to be making some progress, receiving what appears to be 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, seduced by the cheap, presumed clean energy source and unwilling to take Hallam on face-to-face for fear of suffering Lamont's own fate, are unwilling to listen to him. Lamont decides that the only option now is to tell the para-men that the Earth-side agrees to stop, arguing that even if he is killed for it, he will eventually be a hero who saved the world. But then Bronowski reveals his last message which shows that they have in fact been in contact not with the para-authorities but with para-dissidents like himself, who cannot persuade their para-Hallam, and are therefore—in a mirror-image way—begging him to stop the Pump. There seems to be no way out.
Second part: ...The Gods Themselves...
The second part takes place in the parallel universe. The aliens consist of the "hard ones" and the amorphous "soft ones". The soft ones have three sexes with fixed roles for each sex:
- Rationals (or "lefts") are the logical and scientific sex. Rationals are identified with masculine pronouns and produce a form of sperm.
- Emotionals (or "mids") are the intuitive sex. Emotionals are identified with the feminine pronouns and provide the energy needed for reproduction.
- Parentals (or "rights") bear and raise the offspring. Parentals are identified with masculine pronouns.
The hard ones regulate much of soft one society, among other things creating families by allocating one of each of the sexes to a mating group, or "triad" in the novel's terminology, and acting as teachers and mentors to the Rationals. Little is shown of "hard one" society and Dua, the protagonist of this section of the book, suspects that the "hard ones" are a dying race since there are no "hard one" children. Her assumption is that the "hard ones" keep the "soft ones" as pets and toys, as a replacement for the children they do not have. 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".
Dua is an oddball Emotional who exhibits traits normally associated with Rationals, leading her to be called a "left-em". Interestingly, the companions in her triad are also revealed to be unusual and they too behave differently from what is expected from their appropriate sex. She learns about her universe's end of the Pump. By engaging in teachings from Odeen, she also concludes on her own the supernova problem that Lamont uncovered in the first section; outraged that the Pump is allowed to continue to operate, despite the fact that it will eventually result in the destruction of another civilization, she attempts to put a stop to the project.
She cannot persuade her own species to abandon the Pump, as they have no choice but to use it—their own sun as well as all the other stars in that universe are dying and can no longer provide the energy they need to continue to reproduce; their only other source of energy is the Pump. The majority decision is that, while their continued use of the Pump will destroy Earth and its solar system, abandoning it will result in their own extinction and thus cannot be done. While Lamont has assumed the destruction of Earth's sun would be fatal for the para-world, it turns out that in fact they would be able to draw energy off such a huge source directly without needing a Pump any more, and thus they would actually be safer once the Earth sun exploded.
The differences in the laws of physics in the parallel universe mean that the aliens' bodies do not have the same material properties as living matter in this universe. Instead of consuming material that is then converted into energy, the aliens absorb it directly from sunlight. The different sexes can "melt" and merge physically, their analog of sex (the younger ones and some Emotionals can somehow overcome the repulsion between atoms and melt into walls, which is seen as a social taboo). Rationals and Parentals can do this to some extent independently, but in the presence of an Emotional, they can become essentially immaterial and the "melt" becomes total, the three bodies coming together into one (which causes orgasmic sensations, but also results in blackout and memory loss during the "melt"). Only during such a total "melt" can the Rational "impregnate" the Parental, with the Emotional providing the 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 the third child. When this fails, Tritt steals an energy-battery from the Pump and rigs it to feed Dua. She accepts it, as it coincides with her finally being taught by Odeen about physics (which violates the gender norms of this society—Odeen consulted his hard-teacher about the problem of the third child, the teacher encouraged him to go with her abnormalities). Filled with this energy, the triad mates, and Tritt becomes pregnant with their last child. Dua discovers this betrayal and escapes from her family to the caves of the hard ones where she is able to melt through the walls (which is possible because she retained her thinness by eating little in general). Once there she begins a guerrilla campaign to stop the Pump, transmitting the alternative messages that Lamont received in the first section.
Eventually, her escape method of melting through walls and creating the metal messages cause her to lose too much of the energy needed to continue her existence. As she is about to expire, against all odds she is found by her triad. She is about to defy her triad by seeking to die anyway, but it is finally revealed that once a triad has produced at least one more triad of children to maintain a stable population, they are ready to fuse permanently into a single individual of the species's fully mature form—the hard ones. In fact, they temporarily form this same individual whenever they melt, but have no memory of it afterward. This fact is kept carefully concealed by the mature population from the semi-mature population, because the melt is also a mind-meld, and it is important that the Rational of a triad become mature enough to understand the conditions of their existence by themselves, before the final melt into a mature hard one.
Afraid that they will lose the Hard one formed by Dua's triad, the hard ones have coached Odeen into realizing the reality of the melt. All members of the triad are exceptional in their own way; Dua has learnt more about the other universe than any other Emotional, Odeen has shown greater intuition and empathy than a normal Rational, and Tritt has shown greater initiative and technical ability in stealing and setting up the lamp than any other Right.
Odeen convinces Dua that the hard one that they will become will have influence with the hard ones to stop the Pump. As they are ready to "pass on", in between thoughts of the daughter she will not know, Dua realizes that in fact the fusion of her triad had produced Estwald himself, the original inventor of the Pump.
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 invent the Pump. Denison, independently of Lamont, deduced the danger in the Electron Pump (although it was Lamont who discovered the final technical facts), and goes on to find a solution that harms no one and greatly benefits humanity: he taps into yet another parallel universe, that exists in a pre-big bang state (a cosmic egg or cosmeg), where physical laws are different and, in fact, opposite to the ones in Dua's universe. The exchange with the second parallel universe both produces more energy at little or no cost (which is a pleasant side effect for the Lunar residents, who had been unable to establish electron pumps), and balances out the changes from the use of the Electron Pump, resulting in a return to equilibrium.
Denison is helped by a Lunarian tourist guide named Selene Lindstrom, who is 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 earth orbit.
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." However not all translations translate the line this way, it may not be entirely clear which translation Asimov was using.
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 would be necessary to allow a Pu-186 nucleus to hold itself together. He wrote down these ideas, which gradually grew into 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