Back in university, I lived in a bong cloud.
Bear with me here, I am going somewhere.
I lived in a bong cloud, and had many bong cloud conversations that I don’t think I was ever very proud of. A bong cloud roommate once asked me if I thought it was possible to write a novel about a blood cell (I’m not making this up) adrift in the human body (no really, this happened) without ever anthropomorphizing the blood cell in question (my hand to god). I had just read some Thomas Nagel, and so I answered with a pretty confident ‘no’. Our ability to understand something is hinged on our familiarity with it. When it comes to writing the alien, you either anthropomorphize or you don’t fucking bother. I don’t read science-fiction to watch people try to do it (I read science-fiction for many other reasons), but it is entertaining to watch, no matter how unsuccessful (and impossible) I find it to be.
Just keep that in your mind for a second.
I had heard people talk about this novel for years, and now that I have read it I realize that all the descriptions I have heard of it were greatly inaccurate. One called it a ‘first-contact novel’ (it isn’t), and another a novel where a person works at how to communicate with an alien race (it is, but to a really minor extent). Here is my stab at spoiler free synopsis: Isaac Asimov’s The Gods Themselves is a story where a cheap and abundant new energy source is discovered to be an existential threat to humanity, and that the genesis of the technology is from an alien race in an alternative dimension, who may be warning us against its use…
When people unjustly demonize science-fiction, I feel like this is what they are talking about. I see how this writing could feel to many people as being a story more about ideas than characters. Yes, I can see that too. The characters are vehicles for the idea, but as far as doing something like that, this felt the best possible compromise. The characters were there, vehicles or not.
And characters brings us back to the bong cloud I opened with. As far as alien races go, what Asimov describes might be the most alien i have ever read. Of course, some anthropomorphizing was inevitable to make it intelligible to us. I was taken aback at how well it worked, probably because I never thought about an alien race being from a dimension with differnt laws of physics, and thus being able to phase through matter. But he didn’t stop there. Asimov put a lot of different in what was a pretty short section of the novel.
The novel is excellent. But excellent does not mean perfect. This review is already going to be too long, but I don’t think I can not mention the few bits of misogyny here and there. It’s no Heinlein, but for fuck’s sake this was published in the 90’s. But it was pretty minimal.
There were just one or two parts of this story that were jaw-droppingly bad, right at the intersection of things I find interesting. Towards the end of the novel, a character gives the justification for why they believe something, and they give a rendition of Pascal’s Wager, which might be one of the worst reasons imaginable to believe something. Shortly thereafter, there was something else that made me realize that while Asimov was likely a worthy scientist in his own right (as this novel shows), he was a bit of a shitty philosopher of science. It was a bit of a disappointment that he also gave a character genetically engineered super-human intuition to hand wave away a confidence problem in the novel.
Speaking hand waving away..
And then, of course, there is the language issue. If Science fiction has ever once actually handled how to alien races would communicate in a sophisticated manner, I have yet to encounter it (if you think Arrival did this well, Fuck off). They’ve all been the same stripe of bad, namely that science-fiction authors have precisely zero interest in linguistics, and doing the god damned work of explaining how the communication happens. These hand wavings are always comical, and Asimov’s is just as bad – the aliens just ‘feel’ their way into the right answer.
But this wasn’t the first really good novel to drop those particular balls. 95% is still an excellent grade. Or, as someone studying to be a doctor in that bong cloud once told me, “C=MD”
3 thoughts on “The Gods Themselves – Isaac Asimov”
This book was published in 1972, not the nineties. Overall I enjoyed it too, I think it’s one of Asimov’s stronger titles, even though I didn’t buy the aliens (too human psychology, unbelievable anatomy & reproduction) and the genetic Intuition stuff.
Btw: finally somebody that agrees on Arrival, what a load of linguistic hogwash.
I could have sworn I read somewhere that it wasn’t published till much later. Weird.
And yea, everyone seems to love ‘Arrival’. We should form a support group or something.
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I always get the sense that this was Asimov’s attempt to be hip with the new New Wave crowd in the early 70s. A movement he despised… but he also wanted to sell books… never cared for this one.