Isaac Asimov’s The God Themselves

Isaac Asimov

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On January 2, 2014
Last modified:January 2, 2014


Of over 500 books that he had written, The God Themselves was the master science-fiction and popular science writer Isaac Asimov's most favorite books, and rightly so. Written in response to criticism on the lack of extra-terrestrial life and sexuality in his works, the book deals with a cheap, clean, and apparently endless source of energy developed on Earth that works by trading matter to another planet located in a parallel universe, creating nuclear energy. However, everything is not as easy and wonderful as it seems and the price to pay might turn out to be the earth itself.

Were Isaac Asimov, the person who coined the term robotics, alive, he would have celebrated his birthday today.

This master of hard science fiction, born as Isaak Yudovich Ozimov, was considered one of the “Big Three” science fiction writers during his lifetime along with Robert A. Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke. Indeed, he admired his fellow science-fiction author and science writer Arthur C. Clarke so much, he entered into the lighthearted “Treaty of Park Avenue,” which stipulated that Clarke was free to refer to himself as the best science fiction writer in the world (Asimov being second-best), provided he admitted that Asimov was the best science writer in the world (Clarke being second-best).

Asimov is known to be one of the most prolific writers the world has ever seen. He has written or edited more than 500 books and an estimated 90,000 letters and postcards spanning varied genres including science fiction, mystery, thrillers, popular science-in short covering nine out of ten major categories of the Dewey Decimal Classification.

What one notices in Asimov’s extensive work on fiction is that his writing style is extremely “unornamented”. It was a style he adopted out of choice. In the beginning of his book Nemesis, he states:

“I made up my mind long ago to follow one cardinal rule in all my writing—to be clear. I have given up all thought of writing poetically or symbolically or experimentally, or in any of the other modes that might (if I were good enough) get me a Pulitzer prize. I would write merely clearly and in this way establish a warm relationship between myself and my readers, and the professional critics—Well, they can do whatever they wish.”

This was something his critics sometimes pointed at, but more fingers were raised at the general absence of sexuality and of extra-terrestrial life in his science-fiction.

His book The God Themselves, was written in response to these criticisms, winning Nebula Award for Best Novel in 1972 and the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1973.  It was also Asimov’s favorite, as stated in his autobiography “Yours, Isaac Asimov” (page 225).

Deviating from his general style of linear chronology, the book starts with chapter 6 and then backtracks to fill earlier material. The book is divided into three parts:

1. Against Stupidity…

2. …The God Themselves…

3. …Contend in Vain

A quotation by Friedrich Schiller (German poet, philosopher, historian, and playwright, 1759–1805) “Mit der Dummheit kämpfen Götter selbst vergebens.” (“Against stupidity the gods themselves contend in vain.”) was the inspiration for the title of the book as well as the parts.

To Isaac Asimov’s avid readers acquainted with his popular Robot series and Foundation Series, The God Themselves comes as a fresh and delightful surprise. The story starts with a scientist of limited ability but of protective ego, Frederick Hallam, discovering an unusual isotope of plutonium which, by the physical laws of our universe, is impossible to exist. This leads to the discovery of a parallel universe with different physical laws and the development of an ‘Electron Pump’ which trades matter between our universe and the other ‘para-universe’, yielding a nuclear reaction in the process. On the surface, it looks like a cheap, clean, and apparently endless source of energy. However, as the middle aged rival of Hallam, physicist Denison and an idealistic young physicist Lamont find out, the latter at the cost of his career, everything is not right. Earth is probably hurtling towards its self-destruction and the only other living being who wants to prevent this catastrophe resides in the para-universe. Ending with a spectacular climax, not only does the book thrill its readers, it also raises questions of social issues and deals with human (and alien) psychology.

Of the books three parts, the first narrates of the happenings on Earth, the second of the planet in the para-universe and the third takes place on the lunar landscape. Asimov cites the middle section as the one he was most proud of in all his writings. This section deals with both aliens and alien sex, called “melting”, putting the earlier criticisms to rest. The alien society is formed of the “hard ones” and the amorphous “soft ones”, the soft ones having three sexes, with each sex having a defined role. The names of the three immature aliens portrayed in the second part—Odeen, Dua, and Tritt—come from the words One, Two, and Three in the language of Asimov’s native Russia. (The original forms are odin, dva and tri).

20 years from the publication of what Asimov considered his best work, the prolific writer met his end on April 6, 1992,  as a result of heart and kidney failure. Janet Asimov, Issac’s second wife, reveals in her edition of Asimov’s autobiography, It’s Been a Good Life, that the myocardial and renal complications were the result of an infection by HIV, which he had contracted from a blood transfusion received during his earlier bypass operation.

The exact birth date of this man born in Petrovichi in the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (near the modern border with Belarus) to Anna Rachel (Berman) Asimov and Judah Asimov, a family of Jewish millers.,  still remains elusive and is known to be between October 4, 1919 and January 2, 1920. However, as he himself chose to celebrate his birthday on this day, so does the world.

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