Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Review - The Gods Themselves

The Gods Themselves
by Isaac Asimov
1973 Hugo Winner for Best Novel
1972 Nebula Winner for Best Novel

So is that the worst cover you've ever seen?

Quite frankly when I got my copy I thought the dust jacket had some kind of color separation problem but that is how its supposed to look (maybe a bit brighter than my copy but that same design). Even if it went together correctly it would be an ugly cover.

So let's get to the man of the hour Dr. Isaac Asimov whose Hugo history is odd enough that it's worth mentioning just on its own. Prolific throughout the forties and fifties Asimov just about stopped writing science fiction all together in the sixties switching to writing a massive pile of non-fiction. To use one example, his Asimov's Guide to Shakespeare which is one of the definitive works on the bard was written in this period. He was given a pair of token, one-off Hugo awards in the sixties: one for his non-fiction magazine articles and one for "Best All-Time Series" (Foundation beating out The Lord of the Rings). In the early seventies he decided to do a bit more fiction and his first new novel in years was The Gods Themselves. On first glance it does look like the Hugo and Nebula voters just jumped on the chance to toss an award on one of the most influential figures in science fiction but there is some depth here.

The Gods Themselves consists of three linked novellas with very different tones. The linking concept is that a universe where the strong nuclear force is not as powerful as it is in ours is pushing subatomic particles into our universe which has the appearance of free power for everyone involved. Unfortunately for the process is gradually bringing the laws of physics in both universes closer together which will result in their sun burning out while ours goes nova. The aliens aren't that worried about it since they can harness the energy from our sun's explosion.

One of the interesting aspects to the central concept is that while you could characterize the behavior as a "war" between universes it is a war of science. Communication between the universes is minimal since only very small amounts of matter can be pushed through and most of it is just to change elements on our side to be more radioactive.

The first third of the book is pure classic Asimov firing on all cylinders. It features some fairly lively characters, science that catches attention, and a conflict at the center of it that anyone could related to. In this portion of the book the researcher who noticed the other dimensional aliens transmuting elements has become an Edison like figure who uses his prominence to crush anyone who might disagree with him or his methods. Other researchers start to notice that the free energy might not be as free as everyone thought but have to deal with their line of research being blocked for political reasons.

The middle section deals with life in that alien universe where we find a family of fairly unique life forms. One member of this family realized they might be killing everyone in our universe and tries to stop the process on her own. This section isn't quite as effective as the first as it meanders a bit and the life cycle of these aliens isn't completely convincing. Still it's interesting and works well as a continuation of the first part.

That last novella is a problem, however. It reads like Asimov doing a bad Heinlein pastiche. In this section a scientist who lost his position as a result of the Edison-figure from the first novella relocates to the moon where he learns about the lunar society and devises a solution to the overarching threat. When Heinlein does large, clumsy societal exposition it's usually slightly annoying but he can carry it with distinct characters; Asimov copying the worst aspect of Heinlein just made it that much worse. This last third of the book is a dull, plodding mess with characters who just can't connect to you since they're there to just spout rhetoric and tell us how great they are.

So this leaves me in a lurch. The first third was brilliant and if Asimov did a whole novel like that I would have been thrilled. The second third was okay with bonus points for some creative concepts for the aliens and a whole book of that would have left me disappointed but understanding why the award voters selected it. That last third is dreadful and if it was the whole book then I'd be annoyed that they wasted their awards on handing out a token one to Asimov. Weighing the three I think that the last third did not diminish my enjoyment of the first two parts of the novel so I'd recommend reading it, but if you reach that last novella and just can't continue don't feel too bad. It took me three tries to make it through that one myself.