Not sheepish, but individ-ewe-al (livredor) wrote,
Not sheepish, but individ-ewe-al
livredor

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Book: The Gods Themselves

Author: Isaac Asimov

Details: (c) 1972 Isaac Asimov; Pub Panther Books Ltd, 1976; ISBN 596-03772-1

Verdict: Highly readable, if a little patchy, and an interesting portrayal of an alien culture.

Reasons for reading it: After the complete head-trip that is Desolation Road, I wanted something a bit more comfortable and conforming to my expectations. So what better than dear Asimov, who was the bread-and-butter of my childhood exposure to SF (with John Wyndham and Arthur C Clarke)? Plus I had to sit on a train for nine hours, thus reminding myself why I never normally do the trip to SE England during the day.

How it came into my hands: Some little second-hand book stall in Notting Hill market where I went with M and his brother and sister-in-law. It's a pretty rare event for me to find an Asimov I've not read (and yes, I know he was prolific); in some ways I can see why The Gods Themselves is not particularly famous, as it is mixed in quality rather than consistently brilliant.

Oh, and an amusing incident: M and I were both buying stuff at the same stall, and the stallholder asked us if we were together. M thought she was asking if we were paying together, and thus immediately said no. At which point the stallholder mocked him for being such a miser that he would deny our relationship in order to avoid any possibility of paying for me. Me, I approve entirely; one of the things that's comfortable about this relationship is that we both have a similar attitude to money.

Um, yeah, let me get back to the point... The Gods Themselves is in three sections; the first section is fairly standard Asimov: interesting hard science blended very nicely with speculation about parallel universes, the fate of the world in the hands of a bunch of very Asimov scientists, brilliant at deduction but lacking in influence.

The third section is, IMO, fairly weak; it almost justifies this rather cruel Asimov parody: two scientists save the world and then make out. I didn't find the resolution convincing, or for that matter the depiction of the political situation which made this resolution possible. Plus I really didn't care about the relationship between Selene and Denison; neither was really developed as a character, and the dialogue leading up to their screen kiss is just excruciating. So, it fails both as a love story and as a SF thriller (and I'm kind of prejudiced against the whole 'our hero saves the world and gets the girl' structure anyway).

However, the middle section is really quite something. It's exploring not only the physical, but also the societal consequences of a stronger strong nuclear force. And, amazingly, (cos this is not normally Asimov's strength) he portrays an alien culture which is genuinely alien but still evokes empathy and interest in his definitely non-human characters, even to the extent of making alien sex sound sexy. Then the norm in this alien culture is a sort of triad marriage, and one of the viewpoint characters is described as "queer" and portrayed as pretty much the alien equivalent of transgendered. It's sensitively done and rather more than an obvious transposition of human stereotypes and gender issues into an essentially anthropomorphized alien culture. OK, Le Guin it isn't, but even so, I was impressed. And calling your viewpoint characters Odeen, Dua and Tritt (!) is a bit much.

I actually found this section nothing short of gripping; I really couldn't put the book down until I'd read to the end. For this reason I was extremely disappointed that the parallel universe is completely dropped in the third section; there is absolutely no indication of the fate of Estvald, who was for me a far more interesting character than any of the humans, or of the parallel universe as a whole.

The other thing that annoyed me about tGS is its over-didactic tone. The title is based on a quote from Schiller:

Against stupidity the gods themselves contend in vain


and the book is dedicated

To Mankind and the hope that the war against folly may someday be won after all.

And it really, really hammers home its point that people will tend to crave short term comfort even if the long-term consequences are dire, in this case deliberately turning a blind eye to the fact that their unlimited source of cheap energy is going to cause the sun to go supernova in a generation or so. Asimov really lays it on with a trowel; he almost says in so many words, now children, can you see the parallel with our society's careless use of fossil fuels and indifference to environmental concerns?

But all in all, I enjoyed reading this. As a final note, the edition I read has the most inappropriate cover illustration I've ever seen: it portrays a dogfight between stereotypical 'futuristic' and 'alien' spaceships, despite the fact that the two civilizations exist in separate parallel universes and the transfer of subatomic particles between them requires the greatest ingenuity imaginable. TBH had the author been anyone other than Asimov, this cover would have put me off altogether.
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