Fiction Reviews

The Gods Themselves

(1972/1978) Isaac Asimov, Panther, 80p, pbk, 252pp, ISBN 0-586-03772-1

(1972/2013) Isaac Asimov, Gollancz, £7.99, pbk, 252pp, ISBN 978-0-575-12905-4


This is the only novel by the US grandmaster of 20th century science fiction to feature aliens. But, arguably as importantly, this is a novel that directly relates, and speaks, to the current, early 21st century, climate change debate. As such this novel is, at its heart, remarkably prescient.

The novel was first published in 1972 but has recently (2013) been reprinted as part of Gollancz's SF Masterworks series.

The novel's beginnings are set in 2070. This is almost a century after a century after the 'Great Crisis', where ecological and economic collapse reduced the World's population from six billion to two billion. This seems hugely off the mark today (2015) with World population exceeding seven billion, though some continue to have Malthusian concerns as to excessive population leading to the over-consumption (non-sustainable use) of resources. But we have to remember that back in the early 1970s the World population was growing at an exponential exponential rate: that is to say the rate of population growth was not just exponential (growing at a fixed percentage per year) but the rate of growth itself was growing! Since then the rate of growth has stabilised and though we cannot be certain, demographic projections suggest that it will even lower and possibly perhaps lead to a stable population of over 10 billion by the 21st century's end. (Assuming, that is, we do not have a global Malthusian crisis.) So back in 1972, the idea of an early 21st century collapse was very real and something of a significant trope in that generations SF.

The book is dived into three parts. In the first, and against this backdrop of 'Great Crisis', a 'radiochemist' – Frederick Hallam – discovers that a sample of tungsten has been transformed into plutonium 186, which is an isotope that cannot occur naturally in our universe. It provides a new source of energy which a resource-starved Earth badly craves. As to how this transformation came about, Hallam suggests that it has been exchanged by beings in a parallel universe. Hallam is lauded as the father of the 'electron pump' – the new energy source – although in reality his 'discovery' is more fortuitous with the unseen beings in the parallel universe actually controlling the substitution of tungsten with plutonium 186.

Two decades later and another physicist, Peter Lamont, is writing a history of the Pump. His researches lead him to the inevitable conclusion that the pump is not just transferring electrons between parallel universes, but transferring the laws of the universes so that the sub-atomic forces in our universe will be weakened and that this will eventually lead to our Sun going supernova. Lamont's concerns are dismissed by Hallam who will do anything to preserve his reputation and fame. Lamont cannot even get the support of a politician unless Hallam will confirm that the concerns are at least theoretically possible: there is too much political investment in the Electron Pump as a 'clean' energy source.

All this despite some cryptic messages from the parallel universe that have been suppressed, but which might be interpreted as there being similar concerns by some in the parallel universe.

The book's second part takes place in the parallel universe. There, with different laws of physics, the nuclear force is stronger and stars are smaller and burn out faster than in our universe. Time also seems to flow differently and events happen faster than in our universe. Along with progressing the plot with views of the Electron Pump as seen from their, parallel universe perspective, much of the second the book's second part is concerned with exploring the nature of the aliens and their distinctive, sexual trimorphorism: there are three sexes. Among the aliens it is known that operating the Pump will transfer, smoothing out the differences in, the different laws of physics between the two universes. However it transpire that this will be more of a problem for our universe than theirs. The principal motivation for the dissident voices in the parallel universe is more a moral and ethical one of not wanting our (human) civilisation destroyed due to our Sun going supernova.

The book's concluding part is once more set back in our universe but decades further in the future and this time on the Moon. They too have the Electron Pump and with this energy have a thriving society. They also are beginning to exhibit physical differences from humans on Earth; they are longer and thinner limbed, and more fragile than humans from Earth. A former colleague of Hallam's, convinced of the danger the Electron Pump holds, goes to the Moon hoping to use Lunar technology to work on the problem…

The book's climate sceptic debate relevance comes in a number of forms. First, there is a clear analogy between the invisible, slowly accumulating, detrimental effect of Electron Pump operation with that of the use of fossil fuels with invisible carbon dioxide slowly building up in the atmosphere to increase greenhouse warming. An analogy further fleshed out with the self-interests of those in political power and those welcoming the cheap, abundant energy who not only shy away of any examination of possible detrimental consequences but vigorously campaign to maintain the status quo. The novel's title, as noted in the story, is a quote from the play The Maid of Orleans  by Friedrich Schiller: 'Against stupidity the gods themselves contend in vain'. The message being that even gods have difficulty in arguing against the stupidity of those whose desires are ultimately detrimental.

It is also clearly pointed out that some will ignore long-term risks for their own short-term benefit. There is even a direct reference to oil consumption.

'It is a mistake,' he said, 'to suppose that the public wants the environment protected or their lives saved and that they will be grateful to any idealist who will fight for such ends. What the public wants is their own individual comfort. we know that well enough from our experience in the environmental crisis of the twentieth century. Once it was well known that cigarettes increased the incidence of lung cancer, the obvious remedy was to stop smoking, but the desired remedy was a cigarette that did not encourage cancer. When it became clear that the internal combustion engine was polluting the atmosphere dangerously, the obvious remedy was to abandon such engines, and the desired remedy was to develop non-polluting engines.'

There is even an analogy to climate winners. In a warmer world there will be those sufficiently above sea-level not to have to worry about sea-level rise, and those whose climate now too cold for agriculture would benefit from it being warmer. Such climate winners have less incentive to support controlling greenhouse gas emissions. In the novel a similar point is made by the aliens…

If the Sun in the other Universe explodes, there'll be an enormous flood of energy; a huge flood that will last for a million lifetimes. There will be so much energy, we could tap it directly without any matter shift either way; so we don't need them, and it doesn't matter what happens—.

Of course, back when the novel was written the climate change debate was virtually non-existent and you have to look hard to find anything meaningful. The story was originally as three short stories in 1972 that were published in Galaxy Magazine and Worlds of If, before the novel came out later that year.  1972 also saw the UN Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm. That conference came out with a declaration of 26 principles together with an action plan of 109 recommendations. Climate change concerns were generally covered by the sections on pollution, and recommendation 70 specifically called for nations to consult with others before doing anything that might affect the climate.  But is was not until the 1979 World Conference on Climate that policy contemplation of human-induced climate change arguably first meaningfully began to crystallise: this was well after the publication of The Gods Themselves.  And remember, it was not until 1992 that we had the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change following the first, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assessment in 1990. With this in mind, we can begin to see how prescient were the themes Asimov was addressing in The Gods Themselves.

The novel won a Hugo Award for 'Best Novel' in 1973 as well as a Locus Award for 'Best Novel'. It also picked up a Nebula in 1972. Asimov himself said that The Gods Themselves  was his best work.

Jonathan Cowie

See also Tony's review of The Gods Themselves.

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