Mar 8 2011 5:41pm

Great aliens, rubber humans: Isaac Asimov’s The Gods Themselves

I re-read The Gods Themselves because it was 1972’s Hugo winner, and all I could remember about it was three gendered aliens, which didn’t really seem fair. The part of the book I remembered is the middle. It does indeed have three gendered aliens feed on energy. Their genders are left, right, and mid, or parental, logical and emotional. Their sex is very weird but it’s described in detail—it’s as if Asimov read that Tenn story about alien amoeba porn and thought “I could write that!”

Asimov didn’t often do aliens, but he does them very well here. It’s almost Tiptree-esque, and when I say that I am thinking of “Love is the Plan, the Plan is Death.” They feel alien and they feel like people and they have odd weird lifecycles. I could have lived without the emotional one being “she” but since the parental one is “he” and making up pronouns gets clunky fast I guess it’s reasonable. This really is a good novella about three gendered aquatic aliens. It’s a pity it’s buried in the rest of the book, which turns out to be deeply disappointing.

Everybody who complained about the physics in Anathem? I hope you complained just as loudly about the physics in The Gods Themselves, because it’s wrong in exactly the same ways and much less entertainingly. I checked this with two actually scientist type people, because Asimov was a chemist and a hard science fiction writer and I didn’t want to trust the evidence of my own lying eyes, but here we have alternate universes with different physics in contact with each other and with different atoms and energy and messages and actual physical metals being exchanged between them, and this is really scientifically silly. Pu-187? I think not.

But you know if I’m complaining about the science that means there’s something else wrong, because if I like a book I’m prepared to overlook the most ridiculous scientific errors. What’s wrong here is that the human parts are boring. The first part is about squabbling scientists and the discovery of the pump shuffling energy between universes. This is frankly dull, and its one redeeming feature is that it’s fairly short. The third part is set on the moon, and it’s somewhat more interesting than the first part but it has a kind of deus ex machina solution to the problem, which makes it all seem pointless. (I also thought it had been visited by the sexism fairy.)

I do like a lot of Asimov, but this is far from being his best work. However, it won the Hugo and the Nebula and the Locus Award, so an awful lot of people must have loved it in 1973. I’ve tried to see what’s good in it—but really, it’s just the aliens. Maybe the aliens were enough to carry the whole book for some readers? They’re certainly the memorable part. And they’re still worth reading—that section grabbed me. I kept reading the rest in the hope that we might see them again before the end, and was disappointed. So I shake my head and disagree with the voters of 1973.

If you like it, like the whole book as a novel, not just the alien section as a standalone story, I’d be very interested to hear you explain why.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently Among Others, and if you liked this post you will like it. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

Michael Grosberg
1. Michael_GR
I have to disagree. I found the human parts just as interesting. Why? because of the main theme of the book, which is quite overt: the stupididty of mankind. Asimov is a product of the golden age of SF when scientists were the heroes who would save mankind and rationalism ruled the day. And here he is in 1972 writing a book about scientists who are total dicks, or, in other words, as human as you and me. They are petty and will doom the earth due to incompetence and fighting over credit. And then you switch to the aliens - and it turns out they are no better. I liked how refreshingly un-heroic it all was. It may seem dull in comparison to the "universe is doomed" plot, but I think the contrast was the whole point in the novel.
john mullen
2. johntheirishmongol
I found it almost unreadable when it came out. I didn't care about anyone in the book and have never reread it (and I reread a lot of books). It's been near 40 years since I read it the first time and I still feel cheated out of the cost of the book.
Susan Loyal
3. Susan Loyal
Honestly, Jo, I had completely forgotten that the aliens section wasn't the whole novel.
Susan Loyal
4. Tom Nackid
I can't really see the criticism of the science when the whole point of the novel was contact with a universe where the fundemental physical laws are different. The story revolves around that fact that Pu 187-should not exist.
Stefan Mitev
5. Bergmaniac
I actually think the first part is pretty interesting plot wise - but it kept me interested and I couldn't put the book down, though the characters are really underdeveloped and cliche. The third part though is simply bad in all respects, the plot fizzles to a quick and too easy resolution, the characters are weak, and the lunar society is just boring.
Susan Loyal
6. Gillian Forrester
...it’s as if Asimov read that Tenn story about alien amoeba porn and thought “I could write that!”

FYI - in an anthology of Asimov stories that included lots of Author Notes (which one I cannot recall just now, sorry...), Asmiov writes how someone once told him he never had sex in his stories, and he thought something like "ha! I'll show them! I'll write a book that's ALL about sex!!" And he wrote The Gods Themselves.
Susan Loyal
7. Patricia Mathews
Touched by the sexism fairy? Asimov IS the sexism fairy!
Susan Loyal
8. (still) Steve Morrison
Somewhere Asimov said that the alien sex ("melting") was inspired by, of all things, a passage from Paradise Lost! Here it is, from the end of Book VIII; Adam has just asked the Archangel Gabriel whether angels have sex:

To whom the Angel, with a smile that glowed
Celestial rosy-red, Love's proper hue,
Answered:—“Let it suffice thee that thou know'st
Us happy, and without Love no happiness.
Whatever pure thou in the body enjoy'st
(And pure thou wert created) we enjoy
In eminence, and obstacle find none
Of membrane, joint, or limb, exclusive bars.
Easier than air with air, if Spirits embrace,
Total they mix, union of pure with pure
Desiring, nor restrained conveyance need
As flesh to mix with flesh, or soul with soul.

Susan Loyal
9. peachy
Asimov busted out triple-gendered aliens for one of his last published stories, "Gold." (Though in that case I believe they were fictional within the story universe.)
Nicholas Whyte
10. Nicholas Whyte
I disagree with you, Jo, in that I think the aliens bit is seriously flawed as well. The alien sexuality seems pretty conformist - it there no homosexuality? no adultery? Are there no Parentals seeking liberation from domestic chores, no Emotionals looking to set up theatre groups, no Rationals looking for a quiet weekend away from their studies?

And how does Dua teach herself to write in badly spelt English, and also to ooze past the Hard Ones' security and yet become substantial enough to tamper with their samples of plutonium before they are sent to Earth without triggering any alarms?

And much more important, what is the evolutionary point of melding to form a new Hard One personality - and then subsequently splitting again into personalities that don't retain the memories and experience of the time as a Hard One? And doesn't Estwald retain Dua's memories to be aware of what she is up to?

More here.

PS - peachy, I think it's pretty clear that "Gold" is about an AU making a movie based on "The Gods Themselves", so it's actually the same story done over again.
Susan Loyal
11. RustyM
I think one other reason this book won the Hugo is that most of Asimov's SF had been written before the award became an institution (he hadn't had a new novel in 15 years, not counting Fantastic Voyage), so this might be the voters' only chance to pay him the honour.
Susan Loyal
12. Gerry__Quinn
Tom Nackid @ 4:
"I can't really see the criticism of the science when the whole point of the novel was contact with a universe where the fundemental physical laws are different. The story revolves around that fact that Pu 187 should not exist."

The problem is that if an atom of Pu 187 were brought into our universe it would instantly explode, as the strong nuclear force holding it together would be far too weak to balance the electrostatic repulsion of the protons.

It could be handwaved, I suppose, by positing that atomic nuclei somehow come wrapped in a bit of the vacuum from the other universe. This is pretty implausible, but probably good enough for SF.

I haven't read the book so I don't know how Asimov handled it.
jon meltzer
13. jmeltzer
I thought part 1 was okay. Yes, it was another Asimov-personally-disillusioned-by-academia story (I wonder if Hallam is based on a former department chairman of his), but the academic politics were believable.

Part 3 - ugh. The sexism fairy was actively collaborating there (Oh, wow! Selene has big breasts! And feminine intuition! And did we mention she's topless? ). As for the solution- Asimov should have just let the universe get blown up.
Susan Loyal
14. Tom Nackid
Gerry @ 12
It has been a while since I read the book, but isn't one of the major plot points that physical laws from one universe "leak" over into the other? The continued use of the electron pump would result in the sun burning out billions of years before it normally would in our universe and the death of the gaseous life forms in the other universe. In fact I think I remember that the major difference between the universes was that the strong nuclear force was greater in the alien one and this in part explained how gaseous being could exist.
Bob Blough
15. Bob
Have to agree that "Gold" is just the middle section of The Gods Themselves re-written as the making of the movie of that section of The Gods Themselves. And it won the Hugo as well for best Novelette the year it came out. So, Jo, what can you expect? He was an icon and it was his first SF book in years and who knew at the time that he would continue writing SF books. I hated it when it came out (except that middle section) and still can't believe that Dying Inside by Silverberg didn't win, but then to have it win twice! We Science Fiction fans are weird and wonderful, that's for sure.
Susan Loyal
16. Matt McIrvin
Yeah, in the Asimov the physical laws sort of leak through from one universe to the other, and the PU-187 exists because the different laws temporarily apply.

It's pretty silly, but I think it's actually not quite as silly as Stephenson's version. Stephenson makes a fundamental error that Asimov doesn't, which is that he implies that you could make different nuclei by altering the conditions of nucleosynthesis *that would then be indefinitely stable* under the normal set of physical laws. Asimov at least realizes that the nuclei need altered physical laws to remain stable, not just to be formed in the first place.
Susan Loyal
17. Matt McIrvin
...I always thought the third section read like Asimov was trying to write a late Heinlein story. ("The Martian Way" was Asimov writing early Heinlein. And "The Man Who Traveled In Elephants" was Heinlein writing Bradbury, but I digress.)
Susan Loyal
18. hobbitbabe
I read The Gods Themselves several times from about 1974 to 1979. It's weird to think it was so new then, under its library cellophane slipcover thing. The copy on my shelves has been read so seldom that I actually forgot I owned it until the other day.

Like others, I thought the aliens part was so much more fascinating than the rest that I barely remembered that there was a rest. I think for me it was partly just the idea that science fiction could make up different ways of doing sex and gender and family and reproduction, because James Nourse's Raiders from the Rings had a similar fascination for me.
Susan Loyal
19. Strangeattractor
Some spoilers in my comment.

The title of the book refers to a quote "Against stupidity the gods themselves contend in vain." -- Friedrich von Schiller
I thought that was an important part of the book. Like Michael_GR (1) said, the story involved people messing up the universe for greed and stupidity and shortsightedness. Part of the point of the book, to me, was that nothing was going to stop the scientists from exploiting the energy pump. What turned out to be the solution was something that balanced out their use of the pump. Actually, the idea of balance, and how that all worked, was part of what stood out to me from the novel. And how dumping our waste into the next universe was alright because it was just going to make a baby universe by triggering a big bang.

The structure of the novel was like the story of one universe sandwiched between two other sections from another universe. The solution to the problem involved pumping energy between three universes, in a sandwich sort of configuration. And the alien sex was like that too. Three beings sandwiched together. The resonances of all that structure sort of built up in my head in a pleasing way.

I liked the alien part, and the discovery that they become a combined being that does research and walks around and does stuff while they are blissed out on sex. That was quite surprising to me when I first read it, and I thought "hey, cool".

I don't think the alien part, without the other parts, would be as satisfying a book for me.

I haven't read it recently, so I don't know if the sexism fairy would spoil it for me. But I think it wouldn't completely spoil it for me. I really like the book.
Susan Loyal
20. Strangeattractor
Gillian Forrester @6

Perhaps Asimov was like "I won't just show you sex in my books! It'll be a threesome! Of three-gender alien sex! Sex that levels up the aliens into an awesome dude! And then three whole universes will have sex with each other! Is that enough sex for you?!?"
Paul Andinach
21. anobium
The version of the anecdote I'm familiar with it has it that Asimov was also getting complaints that none of his books had any aliens in, and he decided to settle both complaints as efficiently as possible.
Susan Loyal
22. Sinan ?pek
I liked it when I was in high school. This was the first time I read it. Then I read it again at University studying mathematics, and I liked it once again. So far, I've read it more than 5 times and as you mentioned it, I'm planning to re-read it. I liked the physics in it and I find it believable, comparing it with some very seriously wrong sci-fi novels of our time. I'm writing a sci-fi novel myself and I'm aware that one of my inspration sources is God's Themselves. And I agree with you with that the most amazing part is the middle part. Dua is great!
Susan Loyal
23. neroden
A little late to answer your question. However, the one thing I really liked about parts 1 and 3 of the book is the extremely negative assessment of humanity.

Humans *will not* fix the problem they has created, *even though* it will kill everyone, unless it's fixed with a magic cure-all which allows them to retain their existing standard of living.

Another way to put it: humans will try to retain their existing standard of living even if it drives them extinct.

This is actually true, as far as we can tell (overfishing? global warming?). And it was a new message in 1973. Perhaps Asimov had been studying ecology and humanity's really poor reaction to learning it.
Susan Loyal
24. RikoSuave
Amazing read, wanted to read this since I was child, but only did so last week.

Not sure if there are any fans out there, but is the final twist - that the moon is actually the same 'planet' of the para-men? Just that it's way into the future, where the laws of physics (and also its inhabitants) have changed due to this circular energy exchange (which is essentially via a time tunnel).

There's nothing to say that the 'hard-ones' are not just (evolved) humans

The description of the para-planet (the surface and the caverns) sound familiar to the one in the third chapter.

There is talk of the Lunarites moving the moon (gets over the contradiction that there are more stars in the para-galaxy than ours), and also Denison's conclusion that there is either one universe or an infinite number - where he just incorrectly assumes the latter.

The cosmeg pump itself being the beginnings of the 'para-universe's' early go of the positron pump to our universe just after the big-bang?

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