Saturday, 29 July 2017

The Gods Themselves – New Wave Science Fiction Classic

In the history of science fiction series, we are looking at the New Wave which took off in the 1960s and 70s. Many authors prominent earlier continued to be successful by adapting their style. We highlighted three classics in particular. Two weeks ago we looked at Robert A Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land (1961) and last week was Robert A Heinlein’s The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress (1966). This week is the third book, Isaac Asimov's The Gods Themselves (1972). Here is the plot outline.

The Gods Themselves


The Gods Themselves is a 1972 science fiction novel written by Isaac Asimov. It won the Nebula Award for Best Novel in 1972, and the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1973.

The book is divided into three main parts, originally published in Galaxy Magazine and Worlds of If as three consecutive stories. The book opens at chapter 6, segments of which appear between chapters as the narrative proceeds through chapters 1 to 5. In effect, chapters 1 to 5 are flashbacks in the narrative of chapter 6, giving the history leading up to the present time of chapter 6. Chapter 6 then concludes, and the story proceeds with chapter 7.

The main plot-line is a project by aliens who inhabit a parallel universe (the para-Universe) with different physical laws from this one. By exchanging matter with Earth, they seek to exploit these differences in physical laws. The exchange of matter provides an alternative source of energy in their dying Universe. However, the exchange of physical laws will have the ultimate result of turning the Earth's Sun into a supernova, and possibly even turning a large part of the Milky Way into a quasar.

This is the alien's ultimate goal, as it would provide more energy for the para-Universe.

The exact time when the novel occurs isn't specified, but it is stated to be approximately two and a half centuries since the Opening of Japan and a century and a half since the discovery of quasars, suggesting early 22nd Century. The three parts of this book are: 1 Against Stupidity, 2 The Gods Themselves, 3 Contend in Vain?

The first part (Against Stupidity) takes place on Earth, almost a century after the "Great Crisis", where ecological and economic collapse reduced the world's population from six billion to two billion. Radiochemist Frederick Hallam discovers that a container's contents have been altered. He finds out that the sample, originally tungsten, has been transformed into plutonium 186—an isotope that cannot occur naturally in our universe.

As this is investigated, Hallam gets the credit for suggesting that the matter has been exchanged by beings in a parallel universe; this leads to the development of a cheap, clean, and apparently endless source of energy: the "Pump", which transfers matter between our universe (where plutonium 186 decays into tungsten 186) and a parallel one governed by different physical laws (where tungsten 186 turns into plutonium 186), yielding a nuclear reaction in the process. The development process grants Hallam high position in public opinion; winning him power, position, and a Nobel Prize.

Physicist Peter Lamont discovers that the Pump increases the strong nuclear force inside the sun, and thus threatens both universes by the explosion of Earth's sun and the cooling of that in the parallel universe. Lamont decides to tell the para-men to stop the use of the Pump, but discovers they have been in contact not with the other side's authorities, but with dissidents unable to stop the Pump on their side. The last message was them begging Earth to stop.

The second part (The Gods Themselves) is set in the parallel universe where, because the nuclear force is stronger, stars are smaller and burn out faster than in our universe. It takes place on a world orbiting a sun that is dying. Because atoms behave differently in this universe, substances can move through each other and appear to occupy the same space. This gives the intelligent beings unique abilities. Time itself appears to flow differently in this universe: the events take place in an apparently short space of time in the lives of the inhabitants, while more than twenty years pass in our universe, and a long feeding break of one of the characters translates into a two-week gap on Lamont's side.

Like the first part of the novel, this section has an unusual chapter numbering. Each chapter except the last is in three parts, named "1a", "1b", and "1c". Each reflects the viewpoint of one of the three members of the "triad" central to the story's theme.

Dua discovers the supernova problem that Lamont uncovered in the first section. Outraged that the Pump is allowed to operate, she attempts to halt it but cannot persuade her own species to abandon the Pump. Given that their own sun and all the other stars in their universe can no longer provide the energy necessary for reproduction, they consider the possible destruction of Earth's sun worthwhile if it might provide a more reliable source of energy.

The third part of the novel (Contend in Vain?) takes place on the Moon. Lunar society is diverging radically from that of Earth. The lower gravity has produced people with a very different physique. The plot centers on a cynical middle-aged ex-physicist named Denison, briefly introduced in Part 1 as the colleague and rival of Hallam whose snide remark drove Hallam to investigate the change in his sample of tungsten and, eventually, develop the Pump. Finding his career blocked by Hallam, Denison leaves science and enters the business world, becoming a success.

Denison, independently of Lamont, deduced the danger in the Electron Pump. He visits the Moon colony hoping to work outside of Hallam's influence using technology that the Lunarites have developed. Denison continues his work, tapping into a third parallel universe that is in a pre-big bang state (called 'cosmic egg' or 'cosmeg'), where physical laws are totally opposite to those of Dua's universe. Matter from the cosmeg starts with very weak nuclear force, and then spontaneously fuses as our universe's physical laws take over.

The exchange with the second parallel universe both produces more energy at little or no cost, and balances the changes resulting of the Electron Pump, resulting in a return to equilibrium. Another test shows that momentum can also be exchanged with the cosmeg and can be used to move anything without using rockets, including the Moon itself. He wants to break away from Earth in the most complete way possible. The group agrees that moving the entire Moon will be meaningless, and building self-sufficient sublight starships will be better.

[adapted from Wikipedia and other online sources]

Ann Marie Thomas head shot (80x90) (300dpi) Web GravatarAnn Marie Thomas is the author of three medieval history books, a surprisingly cheerful poetry collection about her 2010 stroke, and the science fiction series Flight of the Kestrel. Book one, Intruders, is out now. Follow her at

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