April 11, 2008

The CCLaP 100: "The Gods Themselves," by Isaac Asimov

(Over the next two years, I am writing an ongoing series of essays here that I call the "CCLaP 100," whereby I read for the first time a hundred books considered by many to be classics, and then write reports here on whether or not I think they deserve this title. For the complete list of books, as well as an explanation behind how the list was compiled, you can click here.)

The Gods Themselves, by Isaac Asimov
The Gods Themselves (1972)
By Isaac Asimov
Book #12 of this essay series

The story in a nutshell:
Originally published as three interrelated novellas in magazine form, Isaac Asimov's 1972 The Gods Themselves is a "hard science-fiction" tale in every sense of the term; so look out, because things are about to get a little complicated...

Set in the year 2100, part 1 starts with a prickly and arrogant scientist named Frederick Hallam, who accidentally discovers one day that someone has swapped a dusty old test tube of congealed tungsten in his lab for what appears to be a beaker full of plutonium-186, apparently as a practical joke...except for the fact that plutonium-186 should theoretically not be able to actually exist in our universe. And indeed, after lots of testing and theorizing, the scientific community determines that the mysterious plutonium is actually the work of a parallel universe (or "para-universe" as they call it), one filled with people either smarter than us or more evolutionarily advanced, who have figured out how to "pump" such material into our own universe in the hope (presumably) that we will pump tungsten back to them, thus creating a form of free energy for both worlds based on the nuclear reactions these elements have in their unnatural environments. The remainder of part 1, then, concerns the growing conflict between the now Nobel-winning Hallam (who is desperately trying to hide the fact that he doesn't understand how any of this actually works) and another young physicist named Lamont, who has become convinced that this energy exchange spells the doom of our universe, even while leaving this theoretical para-universe in fine shape (in fact, maybe even better than before if our sun just happens to go supernova, which Lamont is convinced more and more will exactly happen the longer we let this "electron pump" run).

In part 2, then, we suddenly shift to this para-universe only talked about in theory during part 1; and it is indeed a strange place, a planet that appears to actually have two different forms of intelligent life, so-called "Hard Ones" (their equivalent of humans) and also what they call "Soft Ones" (eight-foot-tall gelatinous amoebas, who through the different laws of physics in this para-universe actually exist in only a semi-solid form, so that they "eat" by directly absorbing nutrients from sunlight and "have sex" by basically melting into each other). The plot of part 2 is much too difficult to summarize here; but let's just say that it takes a detailed look at one of the three-member "family units" of this Soft society (a Rational, an Emotional, and a Parental), and their growing realization not only about what adult life has in store for them in the near future, not only what the relationship is between their species and the advanced Hard Ones, but also the fact that what Lamont in part 1 theorized is actually true, that this energy exchange actually does threaten to cause a supernova on the Earth side, and that the para-universe of their own side would actually benefit if such a thing were to happen.

(WARNING: The next paragraph reveals important information about the end of this book.)

In part 3, then, we switch back to our universe but again travel to a strange society, Asimov's version of what a permanent Moon population might be like a century after breaking off from Earth culture (which is exotic, sexy and highly titillating, by the way -- imagine an entire populace who because of selective breeding all look vaguely like the love-child of Angelina Jolie and Tiger Woods, who foster an environment of casual nudity and even more casual sex partners, and who also happen on average to be twice as intelligent as the average 'Earthie' as well, because of it being mostly scientists and artists who initially flocked to the Moon in the first place). To tell you the truth, Asimov seems more interested in part 3 in simply detailing what kind of society such a populace might produce, and all the ways it would be so much better than contemporary Earth society; it seems like only an afterthought near the end that one of these people actually comes up with a way to avert the looming crisis being talked about throughout the manuscript, by tapping into yet another para-universe that is in its pre-Big-Bang phase, thus offsetting the massive amounts of nuclear energy that the first para-universe has been pumping into our own.

(Spoilers finished!)

The argument for it being a classic:
Of all the writers in the so-called "Golden Age" of science-fiction, fans say, none were quite as important as Isaac Asimov; he brought to the genre all the mainstream respect of an Arthur C. Clarke, the audacity of a Robert Heinlein, the prolific nature of a Ray Bradbury, and an enthusiasm usually only seen in fanboys. (For example, for those who don't know, Asimov actually published over 500 books while he was alive, and is the only person in human history to have books published in nine of the ten major divisions of the Dewey Decimal system.) So how do you even begin to start picking what might possibly be considered the "best" out of all this? Well, in this particular case, the argument goes that you start with outside sources; because of all the books Asimov ever wrote, The Gods Themselves was the only one to win both the Hugo and Nebula awards in the same year (a pretty big feat unto itself, in that these are competing organizations), a standalone book that you can simply read and enjoy on its own, unlike the vast majority of Asimov's best-known works that in one way or another always seem to be part of some giant 75-book series that you will never get caught up with before you freaking die. There might be specific books of Asimov's that are better in nature than The Gods Themselves, but only if you take them in context with a whole group of pieces published both before and after them; if you're looking for a single manuscript, though, that plainly shows why people go so nuts about his work, you could do a lot worse than to pick this one.

The argument against:
As you can tell, the main argument against this being a classic is that it simply isn't his best work; that it won all the awards it did mostly because it came late in Asimov's life, at a point when the community suddenly wanted to start recognizing him in a way they never had when he was younger. And besides, critics of the novel would reluctantly argue, Asimov was actually at his best back in the squeaky-clean times of the Modernist '50s and '60s; that he was already approaching old-man status even by the 1970s, and did not transition into that looser, sexually freer era nearly as well as such young SF authors at the time like Philip K Dick, Robert Zelazny and Ursula Le Guin. Asimov should certainly be considered in the "classic" realm of SF, most everyone will agree to by now; just that The Gods Themselves might not be the best one to add to the canon, some would say, but rather one of the series of books he is better known for at this point.

My verdict:
So let me freely confess off the bat that this is something like the 30th book of Asimov's I've now read, so am in a position to judge both his standalone work and his never-ending long series of books. And that's what makes my reaction to The Gods Themselves so frustrating too, because I can understand and empathize with both of the attitudes described above; it is in fact a great introduction to Asimov's work, and also a letdown to those who become bigger and more obsessive fans. And as a matter of fact, this is a persistent problem with all genre work when it comes to talking about "classic" examples, of books that non-fans can read to understand why fans become fans; because that's the nature of genre work, that you become an obsessive fan in the first place by reading and enjoying an entire series of books by a particular author, not simply by plucking one single book out of the fray with no historical context whatsoever. To truly love Asimov, I and other obsessive fanboys would say, what you really need to do is read the remarkable 15-book series he wrote over the course of his life that detailed the next ten thousand years of human history: the "Robot" series (set in the near future, as humans expand into neighboring galaxies for the first time), "Empire" series (in which all these now-mature galaxies go to war with each other), and "Foundation" series (regarding the next stage of human evolution, set thousands of years from now). But that's a ridiculous amount of books for a mere casual fan to take on; hence the constant struggle like today to find a single book of Asimov's that can stand as the best self-contained example of his work. This is always the biggest challenge with Golden Age science-fiction authors, to tell you the truth; that since they were such prolific writers, working in a genre that was still widely considered a minor pulpish one when they were alive, their work is usually best considered when looked at as a whole, not as a sum of its parts. It's always something to keep in mind while reading Asimov's work, as well as any other SF writer from the 1950s and '60s.

Is it a classic? Yes

The next four books scheduled to be read:
Next Friday: Dracula, by Bram Stoker
In two Fridays: Love in the Time of Cholera, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
In three Fridays: Mrs Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf
In four Fridays: Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides

Read even more: Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

Filed by Jason Pettus at 5:04 PM, April 11, 2008. Filed under: CCLaP 100 | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |