Welcome to the first Summer of Asimov, where we'll be examining the third of the so-called Big Three Golden Age Science-Fiction authors. We've already covered the technologist Arthur C. Clarke and the political futurist Robert A. Heinlein, so now we get to the philosophical fantasist, Isaac Asimov. Covering Asimov adequately over one summer proved to be a daunting task, especially with the current coronovirus situation, so I've had to split it into two. This year, we'll be spending most of our time with the Robot and Empire series--tackled in a carefully chosen order--and next year, I plan to cover the entire Foundation series. So sit back, relax, and enjoy some vintage, epic science-fiction from one of the grandmasters of the genre.
Way to spoil the climax, book
In 1971, Isaac Asimov was discussing a fictional isotope that Robert Silverberg had invented, plutonium-186, which Asimov explained was a physical impossibility. Silverberg dared Asimov to use it in a story, and so Asimov figured out what conditions would be necessary for plutonium-186 to exist, namely an alternate universe in which the nuclear forces are very different from our own. Thus began The Gods Themselves, Asimov's three-part novel about another reality intersecting this one. The book has been sitting on my shelves for longer than I can remember, and indeed, I have no memory of buying it, receiving it as a gift, or having it folded into my collection when I got married to a fellow bookworm. Until this summer, I'd never read it, either. Maybe it came from a parallel universe.
The best way I can talk about it is to treat each of its three parts as separate stories, which they pretty much are. The first reads like an interesting thought experiment--the one involving plutonium-186--that is used to discuss the endemic problem of egos and petty squabbles among seemingly respectable scientists. Anyone acquainted with the history of science, or unfortunately, the current state of science, will find the story all too familiar: an unremarkable man stumbles into a remarkable discovery, is lauded as a genius, gets full of himself, and begins a campaign of ruining any fellow scientist who comes forward with ideas that might cast doubt upon his legacy.
This first part is Asimov writing as a scientifically-minded skeptic, and it's riveting, albeit short. He goes surprisingly deep into particle physics, inventing a source of free energy that involves the swapping of elementary particles with a parallel universe (known as the "para-Universe") as well as demonstrating how the gradual bleed-through of different physical laws could bring about catastrophe on a galactic scale. This could be an allegory for any number of technological advances in energy that have proven dangerous in the long run--things like leaded gasoline and, of course, the modern problem of climate change--and Asimov pulls no punches in explaining the incentives--personal, economic, and political--that lead to paralysis in the face of potential disaster. It's frighteningly prescient and brilliantly done, and I have to admit I was disappointed when the novel took its first dramatic shift into a completely different story.
"So what's this book about?" "Oh, you know, trippy stuff."
The second part actually takes place within the para-Universe as three partially corporial entities struggle with their identities and aberrant sexual proclivities. It takes a long time for this story to connect to the first part, and it also takes quite a while for readers to get a firm foothold on what is actually being described from page to page. Asimov is dealing with a very alien environment and a very alien way of thinking, but he's also trying to recontextualize how we view sexuality in order to demonstrate the inherent absurdity of prejudice against those who are different.
On its own, this part of the story is staggering in its surprising depth, in just how far down the rabbit hole Asimov is willing to go in order to show us something alien. It has a few Asimov-like twists and is still grounded in the original thought experiment about a universe with different physical properties than our own, but it's such a sharp left turn that readers are liable to be nursing their whiplash before getting into it. That said, my biggest problem isn't in how it starts, but in how it ends, with a cliffhanger that is never resolved. It heavily foreshadows that the aliens of the para-Universe will have some impact on the regular universe going forward, but they never do.
The third and final part is arguably the most "Asimovian," in that it's set on a futuristic world (namely the moon) and in that it deals with a nebulous conspiracy that is revealed in a final confrontation between the key players. It feels a tiny bit like Heinlein, too, especially The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, because the society of the moon is more ruggedly independent and there's a lot of attention placed on the fact that people walk around nude while looking young and perky.
I don't remember there being a missile dog fight scene
I have to admit this is the weakest of the three parts. Even though the resolution to the problem set up in the first part is clever, the whole thing is kind of disappointing in how it only tangentially resolves the characters from the start of the book and fails to resolve the cliffhanger from the second part. It also throws in a bit too much unnecessary world-building, talking about genetic engineering and "intuitionists" that don't really matter to the plot. For example, turning the character of Selene into an "intuitionist," a borderline psychic able to solve problems subconsciously, makes her much less interesting and less dynamic than she otherwise would be.
The final reveal of the conspiracy is pretty silly, too, not to mention the fact that it completely ignores how moving the moon would do catastrophic damage to the Earth and everyone living on it. Throughout this section of the novel, Asimov reverts to his habit of hiding information from the reader, with Selene even thinking of a critical plot point in cryptic phrases so as not to give anything away. Probably the most frustrating and unnecessary example is the fact that he takes forty pages to reveal the identity of the main character, which only serves to disappoint readers when it's revealed that he is not, in fact, the protagonist of the first part of the novel, as Asimov coyly leads on.
Still, taken together, these three parts make up a fascinating read that every fan of Asimov absolutely must check out. It goes pretty deep into the science, and even though there are some technical inaccuracies by virtue of the fact that Asimov was working with the scientific understanding of the early seventies, it still holds up today as a unique and intriguing take on parallel universes and the anthropic principle. There's also a lot of really good sociology in there, about the business of science and about the nature of sexuality. If you haven't read The Gods Themselves yet, check your bookshelf; maybe the para-Universe has left you a copy like it did me.
[Programming note: I'm not done with Asimov, as I fully intend to go back to him next summer. I've even got the schedule laid out and the appropriate works set aside. I have much more to say about the things I've read and watched this summer, but I'm not going to wrap up until a year from now. I know I'm asking a lot, but just hang in there and come back for my next Summer of Asimov at the end of Spring. Until then, I'll still be here, reviewing plenty more sci-fi classics in both film and literature. With coronavirus complications making it difficult to find enough time for a lot of reading, I might be leaning a bit more heavily on the film than the literature in the coming months, but there are certain books I desperately want to get to. Thank you for your support!]
-e. magill 8/13/2020
SPECIAL THANKS TO MY PATRONS: