13 August 2012

The Gods Themselves

Boring Kindle book cover.

The Gods Themselves by Isaac Asimov
1973 Hugo Award Winner
Got it from: Public Library
314 Pages

Separated into three different but parallel stories, The Gods Themselves begins when scientists have discovered a way to exchange energy with another universe, the para-universe.  Things get dicey when what is at first possibly the single greatest scientific achievement in history, threatens to become a horror story as it is understood that not only the two universes exchanging energy, but also physical laws which could result in our sun going nova.

Eternal contemporaneity
Published in ’72, winner in ’73, this is another title that it seems difficult to separate from the public scientific discourse of its time.  The early 70’s marked the passage of some of the most monumental environmental protection regulations in American history.  I saw The Gods Themselves very clearly drawing on the experience of environmental and consumer protection messages being hashed out on the national political stage.  But before I’ve got you thinking this is a book about vast conspiracies and coordinated cover-ups, rest assured Asimov elevates his discussion to broader epistemological concerns and again draws on the sentiment of the times as he pulls in questions that, given the 1962 publishing of Thomas Kuhn’s, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, spoke to the very heart of the philosophy of science in his day.

Where Asimov approaches the masterful with The Gods Themselves, is not just the incorporation of some pretty elusive and theoretical subject matter, but in that he makes it genuinely fun and doesn’t ever come off overly-intellectual or supercilious (not that Kuhn’s thoughts on non-linear paradigm shifts and the role of subjectivity/objectivity in science aren’t fun).  Without much thought, this could be a pretty great weekend read, but a little more attention also turns up some steamy philosophizing too.  Sure, Asimov touches on elements of Kuhn’s Scientific Revolutions, but I also found The Gods Themselves was especially poignant in an age of vehement and politically motivated skepticism.

“Oh, it was turning sour anyway.  It’s lasted long enough.  What bothers me more—much more—is that he violently refuses to accept your interpretation of the Pionizer experiments you ran after the surface observations.”
“I told you the way it would be.”
“He said he had seen your results.”
“He glanced at them and grunted.”
“It’s rather disillusioning.  Does everyone just believe what he wants to?”
“As long as possible.  Sometimes longer.”
Part 3 – Chapter 12

The Gods Themselves is also strikingly apropos of issues of privatization and commercialization science which have been in the news rather frequently of late.  England recently decided to give the entire country access to its top science journal and the arguments for the free and open sharing of all information and media – including science – seem to be gaining in popular appeal.

“An odd thought.  But perhaps it was that the fewer who knew of your Intuitionism, the fewer would suspect your contribution to what would otherwise be put to his sole credit.”
Part 3 – Chapter 12
Being broken up into three parts, I was most attracted to this theme.  The intrigue of trying to uncover scientific mystery whilst averting possibly serious calamity was really fun, and the juxtaposition of the separate struggles in the normal and para-universes with the same problem was great (even if Book II was something of an unneeded break).

Asimov was also writing this just 10 years shy of the centennial of Henrik Ibsen’s, Enemy of the People, which was published 90 years earlier in 1882.  In fact, I read this as a great update (intentional or otherwise) to the classic which so accurately portends the future struggles to be faced by environmental and consumer advocates of the 60’s and 70’s, and really enjoyed pulling out those connections.  There are characters who just don’t want to believe the worst will happen.  Those who refuse to believe the worst won’t happen, and those who set out to prove the worst could happen. Then of course there are the spineless media and politicians.  In Asimov’s tale though, the scope has expanded by orders of magnitude.  Instead of the threat of pollution that could ruin a growing town, Asimov has threatened the destruction of the world, the entire spiral arm of our galaxy to be exact.  That the consequences couldn’t possibly affect us in our lifetime is big here and Asimov very clearly has little respect for those willing to externalize such consequences.

Now having read every Hugo Award winner through 1979, this book felt very much a part of the genre.  It is certainly not to say that The God’s Themselves was derivative or overly referential, but it recalled this or that from a number of the earlier winners and as I mentioned above, of non-SF titles too, and the effect was something akin to a pleasant reminiscence.  I liked a lot about this book but pulled-up short of seriously falling in love with anything.  I haven’t read much of Asimov, but this makes me want to read more.


Universe 3/5
Social/Political Climate 5/5
Dialogue 4/5
Scientific Wonders 5/5
Characters 5/5

Overall 22/25

The role of the die...
This week’s book is Downbelow Station by C.J. Cherryh.  This is a pretty long book, so I’m gonna be devoting a lot of time to reading this week.

Next week’s book is Cyteen by C.J. Cherryh.  This book is extra-long, so I’m probably gonna die of starvation or my eyes will fall out or something.


  1. I liked it a lot. The aliens are awesome and the scientific bitchiness (and blind stupidity) was well portrayed. All in all a good book, albeit not Asimov's best in terms of prose and style.

    1. Yes, I think the style was a little hard to grab onto at first, but I haven't read much of Asimov so I didn't really have that comparison to his other work in mind. It seemed like I struggled with the beginning of all three sections actually and had to come around to each part separately. Still, I thought this was really fun and on the better side of the Hugo's so far.

  2. Oh God, you mentioned Kuhn and SSR. I should tell you that I have an MA (and I'm most of the way through a PhD) in History and Philosophy of Science, and Kuhn is almost a foundational text for the field. When I read The Gods Themselves, my first thought was "this is a guy with no real academic training who just read Kuhn..." Asimov seems to have digested SSR quite well, while still being overly blunt about it, and missing many of the subtleties. That being said, he also seems to be the first major sci-fi award winner who was willing to discard the hero-worship of past authors who treated science as a new God.

    My problem with the book is that I didn't really find any of the characters all that compelling until the third section on the Moon. Still, I think it's a great book to recommend to people who are learning about science. The fact that it fictionalizes some of the issues that are crucial to the entire scientific endeavour makes it a really useful and worthwhile read.

    1. Cool. I haven't read much phil. of science though it was always something very interesting to me. Maybe had one or two classes that discussed it... Anyway, hope I didn't say anything foolish, just seemed like an obvious comparison to me.

      I had the same experience, the characters don't really grab you until later.

    2. Well, I've read through a few months worth of your blog in a very short time, and I have yet to see you say something foolish, so I wouldn't worry about it if I were you.


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