Of all of the hundreds of novels he wrote, 1972’s The Gods Themselves was Isaac Asimov’s favorite. Having picked it up after reading the first three Foundation novels (a review of that whole series will be coming once I finish all of the one’s he himself wrote), I can understand why it is. The book is divided into three parts, aptly entitled “Against Stupidity…” “…the gods themselves…” “…contend in vain.” The line, as mentioned in the book, is taken from the play The Maids of Orleans by Friedrich Schiller, and each title corresponds very nicely with the contents.
The first bit, “Against Stupidity,” details the struggle of a physicist-turned-somewhat-historian chronicling the invention of the “Electron Pump,” which produces free, unlimited energy with no downsides that is generated by exchanging matter with a different universe with different physical laws. The Pump’s inventor more or less stumbles into inventing it, and most of the technical work was supplied to him through mysterious beings in the other universe, about whom nothing is known, with whom communication is nearly impossible, and without whom the pump will not work, as they are the ones exchanging material.
Naturally, the man credited with inventing unlimited energy becomes an academic giant who rules the academic world with the iron fist of patronage, and much of the first third of the book is a criticism of academia (and particularly its patronage system) and human greed (which causes people to ignore danger when it is easier to deny it). The young scientist who stars in this part of the book, who finds out that the physical laws of the two universes are leaking into each other with disastrous consequences for mankind, spends the first part struggling in vain against mankind’s stupidity and illicitly contacting the “para-universal” beings on the other side of the pump.
The second part was the centrepiece of the book and by far the most interesting and fascinating. The para-beings on the other side of the Electron Pump are, compared to mankind, technological gods. The second part of the book focuses on these “gods,” and takes place in the other universe, focusing on those beings exchanging matter with mankind. What makes this part so brilliant is Asimov’s ability to create utterly alien races and at the same time make them very easy to relate to. One of the unnamed races he described have three sexes that interact in fascinating ways, and I shan’t say more about them as it would absolutely spoil the absolutely brilliant twist that forced me to put down the book for a good twenty minutes to get my bearing. It was simply the best twist I have ever encountered in television or on paper.
The third part, “…contend in vain,” is back in our universe, and takes place on the Moon. It deals with many “hard science” aspects of life on the moon, and brought the anime Planetes to mind in its discussion of native Lunarians (to borrow the Planetes term). In the last third of this very short book, Asimov touches on a lot of the sociopolitical issues of colonization, while simultaneously tying up the loose ends in the first two parts. The title fits a little less well here, as they in the end are not contending in vain, but perhaps the title refers to the lie that the chapter is exposing.
The fact that this book was originally serialized as three stories is rather obvious, as the three parts are rather disconnected thematically, and are only connected by the Electron Pump, which is the focus of part one, more fully explain in part two, and then resolved in part three. Each segment, though, also has its own important aspects of social criticism: part one criticizes greed and academic patronage, part two criticized greed and presented a fascinating alien society and parallel universe, and finally, part three dealt with issues of power and separatism on a colonial holding.
As in his other work, Asimov’s writing can be a bit clunky, and his individual human characters are somewhat flat, but his alien characters absolutely shine, as well as his spot-on presentation and analysis of various social problems that continue to plague us today. The book is well-worth reading, and definitely would be high on a list of science fiction books everyone should read.