The Gods Themselves
by Isaac Asimov
“Schiller. A German dramatist of three centuries ago. In a play about Joan of Arc, he said, ‘Against stupidity, the gods themselves contend in vain.’ I’m no god and I’ll contend no longer. Let it go, Pete, and go your way. Maybe the world will last our time and, if not, there’s nothing that can be done anyway. I’m sorry, Pete. You fought the good fight, but you lost, and I’m through.” ― Isaac Asimov, The Gods Themselves
The Gods Themselves is a story of two worlds that are struggling for power and survival, although they have never met. One world, the human's world, is so consumed with the need for free energy they are unwilling to give up their source of power, even though it may destroy all life in their Universe. The other world needs the energy pulled from the Earth's Universe because their own Sun is about to die. The scientists struggle against an unseen time clock to save their world.
The story is an ingenious and prescient yarn that touches on the issue of our civilization’s insatiable need for cheap, plentiful energy and our inability to accept the environmental consequences of that dependence. It is told across multiple parallel universes and has a description of a para-race of beings that is staggering in its complexity; the novel is also a cautionary tale of scientific hubris and ego run amok and the cross-dimensional dissidents who try desperately to avert a crisis. With echoes of our own world’s current global energy crises and the environmental impact of our reliance on dirty energy sources, the book is an eerie reminder of the trade-offs we make in the name of progress and civilization.
Frederick Hallam, a scientist, discovers a substance, plutonium-186, that should not exist under the physical laws in the universe. It becomes more radioactive over time, shooting out positrons. This substance is transmitted to Earth from a para-universe in which physical laws are much different. This substance provides cheap, seemingly endless, and nonpolluting energy. Increasing amounts of it can be attracted by use of a device called the Inter-Universe Electron Pump. In exchange for plutonium-186, Earth provides tungsten; in the para-universe, tungsten emits electrons and thus provides energy.
The first section, “Against Stupidity,” details the Pump’s discovery from the point of view of Peter Lamont, who is writing a history of this scientific development. He decides that the Pump may transfer some of the physical laws of the para-universe to Earth’s universe (and vice versa), with the result that nuclear reactions in the Sun will grow stronger and the Sun will turn into a nova, wiping out all life on Earth. At the same time, suns in the para-universe will cool down.
Lamont warns about the possible dangers, but his warnings are paid little heed. He attempts to communicate with the para-universe aliens, aided by linguistic expert Myron Bronowski. Ultimately, they succeed, receiving a message that appears to warn that the Pump is dangerous but also appearing to suggest that authorities in the para-universe will not stop the process. It is up to humanity to do so.
The best part for this reader was the second section, “. . . The Gods Themselves,” where the locale shifts to the para-universe. The inhabitants include three types of alien children with different characteristics: Rationals, Parentals, and Emotionals. The Parentals give birth to the other two types, and one of each of the three types constitute a triad who occasionally melt together in a sexual process, experiencing pleasure but later not remembering all that took place during merger.
There are also Hard Ones, other aliens who do not melt. A Hard One is the adult form of a Rational-Parental-Emotional triad, constituting a permanent melding of the mature triad. A Hard One named Estwald began the energy interchange with Earth’s universe because of a winding down of the energy sources in theirs. The Hard Ones know that this may cause Earth’s sun to explode, but they still will not stop the process because that explosion would result in emission of a huge source of energy for them. An Emotional (Dua) is troubled by this and warns the people of Earth’s universe of the dangers of the Pump. It is then revealed that Dua is part of the triad that makes up Estwald.
In the third section, “. . . Contend in Vain?,” Benjamin Allan Denison, a scientist and past colleague of Hallam, becomes involved with a female Lunar tour guide named Selene. The Moons inhabitants have been unable to use the Pump there, but they wish to as a means of becoming more independent from Earth. Denison confirms that the Pump is a danger to the Sun’s stability but suggests that if there are two parallel universes, there must be more. The denouement of the story follows providing an adequate if not inspiring finish to this fine tale. Asimov's imaginative aliens and the suspense created by the scientists made this another classic from the prolific pen of Isaac Asimov.