Isaac Asimov’s The Gods Themselves: In which scientists are jerks and aliens masturbate

At long last we come to perhaps the biggest name in science-fiction literature. Settle in for a long, long — long — look at what might be the least Asimovian story Isaac Asimov ever wrote.

This weekend we're doing something different: Instead of just me droning on all by myself, io9 contributor and Asimov aficionado Alasdair Wilkins has stopped by for a back-and-forth about The Gods Themselves, 1973's Hugo Award–winning novel. I should warn you now that we didn't have time to write a shorter post, so either go take a pee break now or just scroll down to the comments herewith and hit us with a "tl;dr." OK, then? Ready? Let's go!

JW: The Gods Themselves revolves around humanity's discovery of a source of unlimited, seemingly free energy. Years before the story opens, humans were contacted by intelligent beings from a parallel universe where the fundamental laws of physics differ from the laws of our own — for example, the strong nuclear force is much stronger in the para-universe than in ours. And we and the "para-men" exploited these differences by opening up little gaps in the fabric between our universes, so that excess electrons would leak from theirs into ours and excess positrons would leak from ours into theirs.

The catch is that as the particles leak into each universe, so too do the physical laws of both universes become more similar. That's not so dangerous for the para-people — but in our universe, if the strong nuclear force gets stronger, that means our stars will explode at a much younger age. Like, at approximately the age our sun is. Which would be bad.

Part 1: "Against Stupidity..."

AW: Since the book is divided up into three more or less completely independent sections, we might as well start with the first part, "Against Stupidity...". I have six points to make.

6. My argument starts with point 6. This is not a mistake. I have my own subtle reasoning. So, just read, and enjoy. (I realize that made no sense to those unfamiliar with the book, but trust me: Five Asimov fanatics are absolutely dying with laughter right now.)

Isaac Asimov’s The Gods Themselves: In which scientists are jerks and aliens masturbate

1. I think it's worth remembering how Asimov came to write this book. At the time, he hadn't really written a science fiction novel in almost fifteen years, having mostly busied himself with works of popular science and the occasional short story. He always claimed that this book was his response to critics who said his novels never had any sex or aliens in them, so he put in lots of sex, aliens, and alien sex. However...

2. There is none of that in this first section. There's no aliens, no sex, and in fact not a single woman appears (apart from a very brief mention) at all in this part of the book. It's almost as though Asimov is very consciously writing the most stereotypically Asimov-y story ever before he starts deconstructing himself in the next two sections.

3. Until you get to the end of this part, the stakes seem almost comically inconsequential — it's seemingly all about an impulsive young physicist who gets blackballed by the discoverer of the Electron Pump, and his quest to discredit Earth's greatest scientific hero. That's right — the whole thing is apparently about a battle for proper academic credit.

4. Although the section does eventually expand its scope — as you say, we soon find out the Sun might soon explode, taking our entire arm of the Milky Way along with it — it's fascinating how much of the section is devoted to a scholarly history of the Electron Pump. Asimov, who was a scientist and science writer as well as a science fiction author, leans more on those first two backgrounds in recounting the story of the pump, being sure to mention who chaired which conference and whose name appeared as chief author on which paper. It might all seem like minutiae, and it all gets swept aside by the whole exploding galaxy problem, but the history of science narrative that Asimov weaves is actually some of the most wonderfully rich writing he ever did. If this section is his de facto farewell to his old style of writing, he makes sure go out with the best lengthy discussion of exotic technology ever.

5. The protagonist, Peter Lamont, is an asshole. Asimov was generally pretty fearless about writing in unsympathetic protagonists — Susan Calvin from his robot stories springs instantly to mind — but Lamont might be the most singularly unlikable "hero" Asimov ever wrote. He's a jerk to everybody, he picks fights for no apparent reason, he sabotages himself at every possible opportunity (something that's later remarked upon in the book's final section). Again, I think there's a meta-textual way to think about this: Lamont doesn't seem very far away from the single-minded, quick-tempered heroes Asimov trotted out so many times before. His unpleasantness is kicked up a few extra notches, but I think he fits in with characters like Susan Calvin or The End of Eternity's Andrew Harlan or even Elijah Baley from The Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun. He's like an over-the-top parody of this previous strain of Asimov heroes, and it's interesting how completely and utterly he fails in his quest to save humanity. (Or, more accurately, to prove himself right and his enemies wrong. Saving humanity is a nice bonus as far as he's concerned.)

6 (concluded). Asimov absolutely loves weird, elliptical structures. All three of his non-robot/Foundation science fiction novels — The End of Eternity, this, and Nemesis — leaned heavily on non-chronological narratives, and he does it with gusto here. Admittedly, I'm not really sure what the flashback structure accomplishes apart from reveling in some narrative trickery. Chapter 6, which begins the book in the "present" and is returned to several times as we learn about the "past", doesn't particularly add much to our understanding of what happened before. I'm inclined to say this was just Asimov having some fun with structure for the hell of it, because it's tough to puzzle out much significance from it otherwise.

What do you think? Am I onto something with this reading of the first section? Or should we just accept "Against Stupidity..." as the minor section that it really is and move on to the alien sex?

JW: See, this is why I'm glad you're doing this with me, because it never occurred to me to connect Lamont with Susan Calvin. But yes, exactly, total douche — the last words of the first section are "'And no one on Earth will live to know I was right!' cried out Lamont..."

I'm inclined to agree that the stereotypicality is deliberate — Asimov has always struck me as pretty intensely self-aware, and as having a wicked if subtle sense of humor. I'm thinking of his introduction to Dangerous Visions and a preface I read in a Hugos anthology to "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman" — he was a brilliant, funny foil to Harlan Ellison. Also, there's a nice moment in, I think, Prelude to Foundation where someone calls out Hari Seldon for a very understated kind of arrogance or self-pride, which I remember reading as Asimov commenting on himself.

I couldn't puzzle out a deeper reason for the structure in the first section — why he started with Chapter 6 and then interspersed pieces of it throughout the others — except, as you say, that he was having fun with it. I wondered for a little while if there was something to do with electron rings — you know, a very sciencey joke — that I was missing, because he's so explicit about calling attention to it, but if there's any there there, it's beyond me. One thing I would note before moving on is that what I like about the fact that it's all about a battle for academic credit is that this is maybe the most realistic portrayal of how science actually works in the Hugo novels to date, or at least since A Canticle for Leibowitz: So much golden-age SF took a real whiz-bang-neato approach, where yeah, there were problems in any society, but not really any arguments about the facts, because the facts were of course such clear and verifiable things. And of course the reality is, the facts are subject to human interpretation, and all that that implies.

Part 2: "...The Gods Themselves..."

Isaac Asimov’s The Gods Themselves: In which scientists are jerks and aliens masturbate

So then, section two: Now we get to see the para-universe — and the aliens, and the alien sex. The aliens are divided into two groups: the Soft Ones, who are the focus of this part of the story, and the Hard Ones. Soft Ones exist in triad relationships, always. There's one Rational in each group, one Parental, and one Emotional. They're "married," so to speak, that way, and then mate through a process they call melting, and through that mating produce their own Rational, Parental, and Emotional child, who each go off to form their own marriage. And then, after the kids are born and raised by the Parental, the Soft Ones pass on.

Cripes, this is difficult to sum up — although Asimov, of course, relays this whole weird little world so clearly. Anyway, the Soft Ones are so called because they're basically energy beings — they feed on electromagnetic radiation and can phase in and out of matter; Rationals and Parentals aren't that good at it, though, and need Emotionals (who are good at it) for a melting to work. The Soft Ones, being three parts of a unit, are kind of childlike — Rationals are the only ones with any real reasoning power, Parentals are stubbornly devoted to mating and procreation and child-rearing, and Emotionals are basically flitty Miley Cyrus fans. The Hard Ones are like the grown-ups — the Soft Ones can come to them for advice.

It truly is quite a leap from all the other Asimov I've read, and mostly, pretty ingenious.

AW: Part of what makes the middle section so difficult to sum up is that Asimov describes it completely from the perspectives of the Soft Ones — specifically, the three members of the main triad. At no point does he make concessions to readers who aren't triple-sexed beings of pure electromagnetic energy, and as such there are a lot of very basic questions that go unanswered. An obvious one is what any of the Soft Ones look like. But then, does Asimov waste time in "Against Stupidity..." describing in detail what humans look like? No, because we know that already, and he cheekily adopts the same logic here. The Hard Ones are a particularly interesting case, because the little details we do get about them — that they move the area around their vision centers to help express emotions, that they communicate by vibrating the air molecules around them — sound an awful lot like furrowing the eyebrows and, well, talking with the mouth. I haven't the slightest clue what the three protagonists — the triad of Odeen the Rational, Tritt the Parental, and Dua the Emotional — look like, but I have a sneaking suspicion that the Hard Ones look an awful lot like humans. Indeed, it helps hammer home just how alien Asimov's perspective is here that he's able to hide a bunch of humanoids in plain sight and make them all but unrecognizable to us.

Asimov has two major priorities in this section: one is building up this wholly alien world, the other is moving the plot forward. I think he's considerably more successful with the former. As I've already said, the perspectives of the triad are truly alien, and nothing is more otherworldly than the way they have sex. (Although the alien masturbation is a close second.) But even setting carnal matters aside, we learn a lot about the history, geography, astronomy, culture, and even etiquette of this world. We don't just learn about an alien civilization; we learn about an alien civilization that's dying — indeed, their entire tiny, dim little universe is running down, hence the need for the pump — and there's great poignancy in learning about a world that is perhaps millions of years past its heyday. Now, as for the plot...well, here's my issue with it. A lot like the first section, it's told in non-chronological fashion. Unlike the first section, there's no clear distinction between what's happening now and what happened in the past, and there are a few times (particularly when we get the blocky, single-minded Tritt's viewpoint) that Asimov seems to leave it intentionally muddled. The broad strokes of the section make sense, yes, but I'm pretty sure I'd go absolutely batty if I sat down and tried to map out just what happened in the story when. This is complicated even further by the big twist at the end of the story, which reveals the shocking truth about the Hard Ones. It's a great twist, but particularly when you consider what we learn about one Hard One in particular, I'm concerned that the story doesn't really hang together as a sensible narrative. Of course, when you've got world-building this good, I can't say it really matters.

JW: Plotwise, the second section does two things: It confirms for readers that, yes, the Electron Pump is endangering humanity, and it clears up the origin of the warning messages Lamont and his colleague Bronowski receive in the first section. Both of these things are essential, I think — the former because Lamont isn't a protagonist we can exactly trust. I mean, as I was reading, I assumed he was right about the pump being dangerous, but really only because of the preconceived assumptions that go along with reading a science-fiction novel like this: You have a protagonist fighting to shut down a highly popular technology, you assume he's in the right. But again, that was my perspective as a reader. If I'd been in the position of any of the muckety-mucks Lamont approached, I'd have told him he didn't make a convincing enough case, just like they did.

The origin of the warnings from the para-universe mostly just need to be clarified as a matter of story structure — the question of their provenance is raised, and it needs to be answered. But it's interesting that Asimov included the warnings in the story at all. I don't see that they serve any purpose beyond extending the dramatic tension in the first section, giving Lamont and Bronowski further reason to believe they're right. Because we find out they were sent by a conscientious objector among the para-people, someone who doesn't think it's OK to destroy Earth just to keep the para-universe alive...and then, by the section's end, the objector's objections just dissipate away. (I guess the objections, and consequently the warnings, serve a purpose as signifiers of character development. But still, you're left to feel as though all the development — otherwise so very neatly done — was a bit pointless.)

Agreed that the Hard Ones look like humans. The big twist — both parts of it — I saw coming near the beginning of the section, but I couldn't figure out how the bit with the one Hard One all worked out until the book explained it. Twists in older SF are an interesting thing: I always wonder if they were, like, twistier — harder to see coming — back when the book first appeared. And then I wonder why they seem to be easier for later readers to see coming. Is it just a matter of implicit assumptions we bring to the genre, thanks to the greater amount of SF that's been written in the ensuing decades? Or is it actually the case that the twists were fairly obvious back in the day, too?

Isaac Asimov’s The Gods Themselves: In which scientists are jerks and aliens masturbate

Anyway, the second section is what I'd guess locked down the Hugo for Asimov — the first is good, but this is really, like, whoa, for him. Let me note before moving on that Dua is one of the handful of well-written female (or "female") characters we've seen in the Hugo novels thus far. I can't tell whether it's another self-aware intentional bit, but Asimov veers toward typical SF sexism by making the Emotionals the female Soft Ones, and then undercuts that by making her into something more and clearly better than a silly girl.

We have another pretty decent female character in Selene in part three, which takes us back to our universe — specifically, Earth's colony on the Moon — and introduces a (mostly) whole new cast.

AW: The twist is a very interesting thing. I'm pretty sure I was surprised when I first read The Gods Themselves, but I was also around twelve or so at the time and not quite as up with big honking twists. This time around, I not only knew it was coming, but it was also pretty obvious whenever the narrative ground to a halt to drop some rather clumsy clues. I don't fault Asimov for this, but I do wonder whether everything he's trying to juggle in this section — setting up this alien world, advancing the overall plot of the book, crafting a cohesive narrative for this section, and building to the reveal of the big twist — ultimately defeats him, and those last three don't quite work. Thank goodness he's so epically successful at that first and most important task of building the alien world, I guess.

It always makes me wince a bit that the Rationals are the "he"s and the Emotionals are the "she"s. (Ignoring the Parentals, because I think it's fairly obvious they are the ones who would get the third, new pronoun if Asimov had been foolish enough to invent one.) But I think you're right — it's stronger to start with the stereotypical gender roles and then deconstruct them with Dua the rational Emotional and Odeen the emotional Rational. Part of their greatness (and Tritt's as well) is quite explicitly tied into how they defy the conventional gender roles of their race, and the same goes for human genders as well. I should also mention, since I've quite to my surprise been mildly criticizing one of Asimov's most revered works, that Asimov actually has a surprisingly strong track record with female characters before this. I don't think he ever gave his novels a female protagonist (except maybe in Robots and Empire, but that's debatable), but a lot of his stories long before The Gods Themselves had well-written women in crucial roles. There's Susan Calvin, of course, but also Gladia Delmarre in The Naked Sun and Arkady Darrell in Second Foundation. Not bad for a guy who once explained he utterly failed in his first stab at writing female characters because he had, at the time, never even been on a date and had absolutely no idea what women were all about.

Part 3: "...Contend in Vain?"

Isaac Asimov’s The Gods Themselves: In which scientists are jerks and aliens masturbate

But in any event, onto that third section. I've got a couple thoughts that I'll save for the next round, but I wanted to raise one rather strange thought that occurred to me. You mention Selene as another well-written female character, and it strikes me that she's an awful lot like Dua in her function. She's a non-scientist (or, in alien terms, non-Rational) who listens without always entirely comprehending to the complex theories of her scientist (Rational) associate, and then she uses that information to come up with the right answer. This isn't that interesting in itself, maybe, but then consider her sometime lover and this section's villain, Dr. Neville. He's a supremely arrogant, deeply unpleasant physicist who looks down on those who knows less than him, sees conspiracy everywhere, and assumes he and only he knows what's right. Sound familiar? Why, it's positively Lamont-ian. I find it rather amusing that Asimov seemingly repurposed the protagonists of his first two sections as the main supporting players of his book's final act.

JW: Yeah, yeah, yeah! I didn't think about Selene and Neville that way, but I think you've got it. And this isn't as profound an observation, but it's also kinda neat how he brings Denison — the good guy in what's technically the novel's very first section — back as the protagonist for the whole last section. It works not just because Lamont is so not the guy you want to see "win" at the end (even if his victory would save the world), but because Denison really does feel like the true, if often absent, protagonist of the drama: It's his tiff with Frederick Hallam, the "inventor" of the Electron Pump, that starts it all, after all.

So, this section is set on the Moon, and involves Denison — long disgraced as a scientist on Earth, thanks to his feud with Hallam — coming there in the hope of performing some experiments that will prove the pump is dangerous. He falls in with Selene, a beautiful native Lunarite tour guide, who's actually surveilling him for her boyfriend, Barron Neville, an arrogant physicist. Neville wants to bring Electron Pump technology to the Moon, despite the fact that the Lunarites already have all the perfectly clean energy they need, thanks to the solar batteries they've planted on the Moon's light side. See, maintaining the batteries means having to occasionally travel to the surface, and native Lunarites tend to be agoraphobic and hate leaving the tunnels they live in.

Maybe, based on what you noticed about Neville reprising Lamont and Selene reprising Dua — maybe this is a stretch, but maybe if Asimov is trying to make a larger point, it's that the spirit of science is less about knowledge and technical ability and more about attitude. Now, I'll grant that this is a pet belief of mine, so I might be seeing it here because I want to, but on the other hand, I don't think it's so crazy: Dua and Selene, as you say, are non-scientists, and even Denison is just a radiochemist — little more than a lab technician — who teaches himself physics; even if it weren't for Hallam's persecution of him, he wouldn't be all that academically accredited. This is specifically pointed out. But Dua, Selene, and Denison are simply interested in the truth, no matter how horrible it may be. Whereas Lamont and Neville are accredited, but they're so hemmed in by their emotions, by what they want to be true, that they're ultimately pretty useless. There's a long-standing equation of modern scientists with "gods," and of course the idea that science has displaced God has been a pretty common one for decades. I wonder if the "gods themselves" in the book's title are contemporary scientists, and if Asimov isn't kind of wearily lashing out at the unshakable certainty some members of the scientific community have in their own powers.

This is such an ambling section — there's a lot going on that doesn't feel totally necessary to the story: all the stuff with the Lunar Commissioner, Denison and Selene's excursions to the Moon's surface, and their watching the game in the arena. It certainly doesn't feel like the fate of the galaxy is at stake — it doesn't even feel like Denison's fate is really at stake! At worst, it seems like he might get sent back to Earth. I suspect one could crank out the plot much more speedily and almost as effectively. But it's all in service of creating richer characters, I think. And since a big chunk of the story has to do with Denison and Selene's burgeoning romantic relationship, can we attribute it to Asimov, now that he's decided to write about sex, wanting to write about it in a realistic, gradual, even respectful way? Sure, he spends a few words describing how good-looking Selene is, but he also devotes at least as many to Denison being old and out of shape. It's very genuine. Anyway, honestly, the novel's main plot almost feels secondary here; this relationship between two people is really what matters. And of course, that's pretty much how life is. But it's a very odd, if fitting, resonance with the rest of The Gods Themselves.

The other thing I really like about this section is how it's not just a shift in setting, but a shift in perspective, which makes absolute sense: In a foreign place — which is essentially what the Moon here is — the people see things differently. In the first section we get no sense about the declining state of affairs, especially in regard to science, on Earth. And then in this section, it's like the curtain gets pulled back.

AW: I think you're right on with what's going on in this section. Let's go back to the full quote that gives the book and its individual sections their names: "Against stupidity, the gods themselves contend in vain." And you're right, it isn't the "gods" that save the day — not the brilliant physicists Lamont and Neville, not the impossibly advanced aliens (and that includes Dua). The saviors of humanity (and most of the galaxy) are about as mortal as it gets, a disgraced radiochemist and a lunar tour guide. But because they understand how the world works in a way their loftier counterparts don't — Selene because of her intuitive abilities, Denison because of bitter experience — they grasp that they need to not only prove the problem exists, but to solve it as well.

Isaac Asimov’s The Gods Themselves: In which scientists are jerks and aliens masturbate

There are a couple other "mortals" in this section I found fascinating: the lunar coordinators Montez and Gottstein. They really crystallize the point you make about the outsider perspective, as they are Earthmen who have come to the Moon and can now see their planet for what it is. You might say that the Moon is the last gasp of what we want humanity to be — a world of adventure, innovation, and progress — while the Earth is what we always knew it to be — a world obsessed with comfort, security, and the easy way out. It's as though Asimov is forcing the most optimistic and the most pessimistic possible outcomes of sci-fi futures to coexist. Admittedly, Earth has reasons for its risk aversion — as the two coordinators cryptically explain, the planet went through a Great Crisis a couple generations back that wiped out four billion people. Asimov never tells us what actually happened in this crisis — it could be war, plague, or perhaps even robotic uprising (hey, this is a very different sort of Asimov novel) — but we do know it was bad enough to break humanity's spirit. Even here, I wonder if Asimov was being overly optimistic — after all, we haven't experienced anything on the order of this Great Crisis, and I'm pretty sure modern scientists and politicians would still react exactly the same as those in the book if presented with an Electron Pump. It definitely doesn't take billions of deaths for humans to take the easy way out. I do wish Asimov had found a way to return to this fictional universe(s), because there are so many strands and ideas he only vaguely alludes to that could have supported entire novels worth of material. If nothing else, I'd have liked to know how the Great Crisis earned its capital letters.

I think I should mention one small general qualm I have with the book — did it sometimes read like a science textbook to you as well? This book is rooted more firmly in hard science than maybe any other Asimov book, with none of the positronic robots, neuronic whips, interstellar spaceships, 400-year-old scientists, and kettle-driven time travel that pops up in his other books. Sure, there's the inter-universal transfer, but even that is just a very tiny point that's built around detailed explanations of how the strong nuclear force would be different in each universe that are more or less rigidly scientific. (Indeed, Asimov once said the book emerged from trying to figure out just what sort of universe could contain an isotope like plutonium-186.) There's nothing wrong with that, I suppose, but since Asimov books tend to be about people very explicitly discussing the impact of exotic science and technology, the greater emphasis on real-world physics makes the dialogue feel clunkier than usual. I mean, I love The Gods Themselves, but this is clearly a book for people with a high tolerance for involved discussions of how the strong nuclear force affects stellar decay. (And, as an aside, I find it very amusing such a science-heavy book would feature talk of taking the Moon out of orbit on a journey through the cosmos, considering two years after the book was published Asimov became such a vocal critic of the ludicrous premise of Space: 1999. But then, Asimov's method did make a lot more sense. If only Gerry Anderson had read this book, I guess.)

I'll leave you the task of summing this all up — it's your series, after all, and I'm just glad to be here — but I'll take a shot at tying my thoughts together. What I think our discussion has shown me is that plot was never Asimov's priority with this book. The first section feels like meta-commentary on his previous works and how science works, and the other two sections feel like very different but equally brilliant exercises in world-building. (How did we forget to talk about the lunar ball game, the lunar skiing, and the lunar nudity!? So much lunar goodness...oh well, too late now.) Yes, there's a central conflict here, but the third section dispatches it so easily, almost offhandedly, that it's hard to take it seriously. After all, Denison doesn't, deciding against going back to Earth to see the look on Hallam's face. (Not to mention receive thanks for saving the world, but really, it's all about Hallam again.) You obviously have a far greater grasp of the other Hugo books, but I'd be surprised if many of them create worlds so deftly textured, much less two entire universes of such rich detail. I don't think this is Asimov's best novel, but I think it just might be the most fascinating world he ever devised. Considering the millions of words he spent crafting his Robots/Empire/Foundation universe, that's really saying something.

JW: We're at about 5,000 words now — and, if we're lucky, maybe a dozen very patient readers at this point? — so I'll thank you again for suggesting this collaboration, because it's been a blast for me, and won't say too much else. I will note that although the Friedrich Schiller quote from which the novel gets its title is a statement, the third section is actually tagged "...Contend in Vain?" It has to be, because if it were a statement, the book's happy ending wouldn't make any sense!

And I will totally agree that this novel reads somewhat like a science text. Certainly not to its detriment, but it's there. To be honest, a few pages in I started to worry that I didn't know enough physics or chemistry to really understand it. (And to be even more honest, if I had to describe in any detail how plutonium-186 works — well, just, uh, don't ask me to. Don't ask me to describe how any real isotopes work, either.)

But I think that's OK. Hey, I love the less rigorous, more comic-booky aspect of SF as much as anyone; I love neuronic whips and positronic brains and psychohistory. But real science is so important — our culture and lives are nothing less than a product of it, even if it feels invisible or irrelevant to many people — that I'm thrilled whenever it gets play in a medium whose primary purpose is to entertain. And I'm glad to say we'll see a lot more of that in two weeks, when "Blogging the Hugos" returns in its regular, shorter form and Arthur C. Clarke hits us with Rendezvous With Rama.

"Blogging the Hugos" appears every other weekend. In the next installment: Rendezvous With Rama, by Arthur C. Clarke, from 1974.

Josh Wimmer is a freelance writer in Madison, WI. He can usually be found here.