Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Review - The Gods Themselves by Isaac Asimov

Short review: An unlikely discovery provides limitless energy with a hidden cost. Aliens in a strange universe are confronted by an ethical dilemma. And then everything is fixed effortlessly.

What if energy
Came from a strange universe
With odd aliens?

Full review: The Gods Themselves is one of Asimov's relatively few stand alone novels, and the one for which he received the most awards. Unfortunately, it doesn't quite reach the level of excellence that I would hope a novel that won the Nebula and Hugo awards should have attained, although it is still quite good.

The plot of the novel stems from, essentially, a physics trick: Under what circumstances could the impossible isotope Plutonium-186 exist, and what would it mean if we could locate a parallel universe in which those conditions existed. The novel also explores what a wholly and completely alien society without any contact with humanity (and only limited contact of any kind with our universe) might be like.

The first part of the novel is basically a story that asks the question: What if we discovered a dangerous perpetual motion machine that requires an impossible element, and explores the political ramifications that might follow. This section is interesting, but not particularly exceptional, mostly focusing on the fact that once people have something that is immediately beneficial, the long term negative consequences, no matter how destructive, will usually be ignored.

The second part of the novel is by far the best section of the story, as Asimov tackles a universe with entirely different physics from ours, as well as creating a wholly alien culture of creatures living in that universe. As a science fiction author who rarely included aliens in his works, and was clearly uncomfortable dealing with sex, Asimov seems to have saved up a decade's worth of both for this book, creating some very unique aliens, an entirely alien culture, and throwing in a fair amount of alien sex. This is the most interesting and well-written section of the book, as it focuses on how the aliens deal with a huge ethical problem, including an explanation as to why they can not simply turn their back on a process that provides immediate benefits but potential long term negative (and unethical) consequences.

The final section of the book is the weakest - so weak in fact that that it serves to restrospectively drag down the first two. In this portion of the story, the problems raised by the first two sections are wrapped up neatly in an entirely facile manner that avoids inconveniencing anyone. As a matter of fact, the final solution makes everyone better off than before, and with little more than a hand-wave eliminates all the problems previously established by the story. This ending is really too simplistic for the rest of the book, and essentially gives all the short-sighted characters in the first two sections an easy solution to what should have been an almost intractable problem..

Still, The Gods Themselves is considered to be a classic of science fiction, and the middle section of the book alone makes it worth reading. Sadly, the opening and closing parts of the story are not nearly as strong as the middle, transforming what could have been a superlative book into merely a decent one. This novel isn't as good as Asimov's best work, and of his books, this is not the one I would have picked to win a stack of awards, but it is still a good book.

1972 Hugo Award Winner for Best Novel: To Your Scattered Bodies Go by Philip José Farmer
1974 Hugo Award Winner for Best Novel: Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke

1972 Locus Award Winner for Best Novel: The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin
1974 Locus Award Winner for Best Novel: Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke

1972 Nebula Award Winner for Best Novel: A Time of Changes by Robert Silverberg
1974 Nebula Award Winner for Best Novel: Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke

List of Nebula Award Winners for Best Novel

1973 Hugo Award Nominees
1973 Locus Award Nominees
1973 Nebula Award Nominees

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