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Literature / The Gods Themselves

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"Earthmen want the Pump; they want the free energy; they want it enough to refuse to believe they can't have it."
"But why should they want it, if it means death?"
"All they have to do is refuse to believe it means death. The easiest way to solve a problem is to deny it exists."
Doctor Benjamin Allan Denison and Selene Lindstrom

1972 novel by Isaac Asimov. Features a seemingly perfect solution to Earthling energy needs, a parallel universe with really unusual aliens, and a Lunar colony with separatist tendencies.

Extremely atypical for Asimov's work, most of the story focuses on sex note  and a trio of aliens named Odeen, Dua, and Tritt.note  Their species has three genders, and the three of them are a "triad". Dua is of the emotional gender, but she is considered an intellectual compared to the rest of her kind. Their planet is host to two species, divided into "Soft Ones" and genderless beings known as "Hard Ones" (due to the plot-important fact that atomic forces are weak in their universe and Soft Ones have sex by overlapping their bodies).


Typical for Asimov's work, most of the book is them having conversations. Dua discusses a recently-built trans-dimensional reactor with one of her mates. One of them explains that the reactor connects to a universe populated by humans. It turns out that the Hard Ones went to great lengths to convince the humans to build machinery on their end, and the reactor works on the principle of isobar exchange — that is, two substances, each stable in only one universe, decay one into the other and are constantly swapped around.

Dua comes to the conclusion that the reactor has minor long-term effects for their universe, because the machine causes the laws of physics to bleed between universes, making their cold and dying stars burn out slower. However, she is is shocked when she comes to a parallel conclusion, that the reactor will cause stars in the human universe to burn faster in a dramatic fashion, possibly causing a supernova in a matter of decades.


Meanwhile on Earth, a scientist talks about how the reactor works so that the reader understands the conflict. He is trying to experimentally prove that the sun is burning hotter. Unfortunately, the free, clean energy the reactor produces is far too convenient and he can't get the government to do anything about it. Fortunately, two scientists on the Moon are trying out a third option.

The novel provides examples of:

  • Accidental Innuendo: The "Soft Ones" become "Hard Ones" when they have sex. While it's not clear if this even was accidental on Asimov's part, if it wasn't then it would mean that the entire novel was just the setup for a dick joke that flew under the radar, which to be honest sounds more like something Terry Pratchett would do.
  • Aliens Speaking English: The first third of the book revolves around the receipt of an alien message by a science historian, Lamont; he recruits Bronowski, a professor of archaeo-linguistics, to decipher the symbols. In the second part, we see the aliens' side of the exchange.
    • This work also has aliens mastering English through empathy
  • All of the Other Reindeer: Dua versus the other Emotionals. Lamont kind of comes to see himself this way, too.
  • Arranged Marriage: The Hard Ones actively select triad partners for the Soft Ones.
  • Artistic License – Nuclear Physics: Spectacularly averted and/or subverted: when a radio-chemist discovers a radioactive element that cannot possibly exist under the known laws of physics — it turns out to be from another universe where the laws of physics are sufficiently different that it can exist there!
  • Apocalypse How: Potentially a galactic-scale one.
  • Asimov's Three Kinds of Science Fiction: Social sci-fi written by Asimov.
  • Berserk Button: Never, ever suggest to Hallam that he is not really the inventor of the Pump. One guy got blackballed and driven to revenge for merely bringing it up, in the course of writing a book about what a genius Hallam is.
  • Bizarre Alien Biology: The Soft Ones have three sexes: Rational/left, Emotional/mid and Parental/right, which reproduce by fusing their bodies together at the intermolecular level ("melting"). This creates a mature solid form with the fused mind of the three soft ones, which forget this little fact after the act.
    • Just to clarify this a bit, when a triad of Soft Ones "melt" (that is, mate), they temporarily form a Hard One, but don't remember that after they separate (the Hard One does, however, remember its previous periods of consciousness when it is formed again). Nonetheless, this fusion is related to reproduction, being the means by which new Soft Ones are conceived (one at a time) to grow to term inside the Parental of the triad. It's not said outright, but there is the implication that there is an order to the pregnancies so that each triad will produce at least one full triad of offspring before they grow out of the breeding stage and finally merge permanently as a Hard One. The Hard Ones are genderless and act in a parental/mentor advisory role to the Soft Ones (though the Parental Soft Ones act as parents to the babies when the latter are very young).
  • Bizarre Alien Sexes: The Soft Ones have three sexes: Rational/left, Emotional/mid and Parental/right, which reproduce by fusing their bodies together and "melting".
  • Beige Prose: A later Asimov work, Gold, has a bunch of frustrated film writers disparately try to cobble together a screen adaptation of The Gods Themselves, cursing Asimov's dialogue laden, non-descriptive, and beige prose the entire way.
  • Big Eater: Bronowski's constant snacking.
  • Chekhov's Gunman: Doctor Denison becomes the protagonist of the third part after only being mentioned in the first part as the person who sank into obscurity after his insult launched Hallam's career.
  • Compound Title: Title Drop in 3 parts: "Against Stupidity...", "... The Gods Themselves...", and "... Contend In Vain?".
  • Common Tongue: Planetary Standard, whatever it is.
  • Complete-the-Quote Title: "The Gods Themselves" refers to a longer quote from Friedrich Schiller, which makes up the titles of its three acts: "Against Stupidity ... The Gods Themselves ... Contend in Vain." Fitting, since the willful stupidity of certain characters literally threatens to destroy the world.
  • Caused the Big Bang: The heroes state at the end that the way they are draining the energy from another universe (which is all a single star) will eventually cause a Big Bang by making the star go supernova. It is unknown whether it happened in our universe, since spontaneous leakages are quite possible.
  • Covert Pervert: Dua, with her "Left-Em" tendencies and her tendency to merge with rocks.
  • Creative Sterility: Dua believes the Hard Ones suffer from this, and that the Soft Ones are a kind of Robot Buddy child substitute they have created to make up for this..
  • Cryptic Background Reference: "Just about the time the Lunar colony was being established, Earth went through the Great Crisis. I don't have to tell you about that." But it apparently killed about 4 billion people.
  • Cultural Cringe: Aggressively averted by the “Loonies”. Soft Ones, especially Rationals, seem to have a straightforward case of this towards Hard Ones.
  • A Date with Rosie Palms: The Soft Ones' analogue of sex involves the triad members merging with each other. An Emotional, however (at least while young) is capable of merging with rocks instead, producing much the same feelings as the merging. In addition, it's stated that Odeen used to have a habit of passing tips of projection from his own body through each other, which caused "a pleasant tickling sensation that made it easier to listen and made him nicely sleepy afterward". All of that is very much frowned upon by the society.
  • Dying Race: Due to their sun running out, the parallel universe civilization numbers only about ten thousand as of the beginning of the story.
  • Dysfunction Junction: Earth's politics and academia.
  • Fake Ultimate Hero: Hallam. Everyone believes he is the one to give them the Electron Pump. In reality, the main idea was stolen from another, while the rest of the work was done by people who were afraid to take credit in time.
  • Free-Love Future: The Moon Colony seems to be this.
  • Future Food Is Artificial: At least on the Moon.
  • Gone Horribly Wrong: the aliens helped humanity build the source of clean unlimited power. Unfortunately, it will blow up the sun.
  • Hannibal Lecture: Senator Burt to Lamont.
  • Ignored Expert: No fewer than three Jor-Els attempting to warn Earth of a danger. One is an alien and the two others are human. The name of the novel (as well as those of the three parts) comes from the quote, "Against stupidity the gods themselves contend in vain."
  • IKEA Erotica: The descriptions of "melting" and other Soft Ones practices tend to read like this. To someone from the para-universe, though, these accounts would probably be pretty racy.
  • Intangibility: The Soft Ones are capable of that, to an extent.
  • Lightworlder: The Moon people. Goes into a lot of detail.
  • Literary Allusion Title: takes its title from Schiller's "Die Jungfrau von Orleans"
  • Living Polyhedron: The Rationals and Parentals are ellipsoids and parallelepipeds, respectively.
  • Luke, I Am Your Father: Blink and you'll miss it, but Odeen reveals to Dua that Losten was formed by her parents.
  • Mars-and-Venus Gender Contrast: A three-way version for the relationships between Rationals, Emotionals and Parentals, both in general and within the triads. Ironically so for the protagonist triad, since they are less trimorphic than "normal".
  • Merger of Souls: This is how the Soft Ones in the parallel universe have sex. It's also how the Hard Ones are formed, when the last mating becomes permanent.
  • Mister Seahorse: When the Soft Ones breed, the one that actually carries the child is the Parental, and Parentals are consistently referred to by Asimov as "he".
  • Minovsky Physics: Takes the premise of beings from another universe sending an impossible isotope of plutonium into ours, and extrapolates the consequences to drive much of the plot. For instance, the other universe's physics leak into our universe along with the Plutonium-186...
  • Most Writers Are Human: Asimov purposefully avoided aliens in most of his books, precisely because he was frustrated with this trope. "Aliens" created by other authors never felt realistically alien to him, and his own efforts impressed him no better.note  As a result, most of his aliens are unabashedly humans-from-other-planets, caused by the plot requiring a species from another planet to work ("Nightfall" can't take place on Earth, or really involve someone with knowledge of the larger universe, for example). His most notable effort at creating truly alien aliens would be for this work, but while they are quite alien biologically, they still sound a lot like humans in character.
  • Narnia Time: At the end of the first part, Lamont is wondering why there have been no new messages from the parallel universe for two weeks. The end of the second part reveals the one writing messages took an overly long lunch.
  • Never Heard That One Before: Selene (pronounced "sell any") is quick to point out that whatever joke her name brings to mind she's heard it already.
  • Not of This Earth: Plutonium-186. Chemists and physicists are befuddled by an isotope of plutonium whose nuclei shouldn't hold together for more than a trillionth of a trillionth of a second, according to the natural laws of our universe. Then, one scientist realizes that the reason plutonium-186 can be stable is because it brought a bit of the physics of its home universe with it.
  • Older Than They Look: A minor example with the Moon people. The low gravity causes the visible signs of aging to appear later
  • Out with a Bang: The Soft Ones reproduce by "melting", an extended period of time in which they physically merge with their other two partners. Afterwards, one of them gives birth. The children's sexes always occur in a specified order, and all the members of the triad die after the birth of the third child (long ago, some triples had six, thus providing the answer to the obvious problem with mathematics. Today, the energy shortage doesn't allow that anymore). Subverted because we eventually discover (along with the viewpoint Soft Ones themselves) that they don't actually die, they permanently merge and become a "Hard One", which up until now the Soft Ones and the reader have been led to believe is a different race. This also occurs temporarily during the other meldings, though the Soft Ones retain no memories of this.
  • Power Trio: Odeen (brains and empathy), Dua (empathy and brains) and Tritt (instinct and initiative).
  • Reactionless Drive: Asimov managed to come up with a fully thought through mechanism for this that doesn't involve abandoning conservation of momentum. There might not be anything to push against where you are in this universe, but what about the one next door?
  • Real Award, Fictional Character: Hallam received a Nobel prize for his work (well, he's actually a Fake Ultimate Hero, but still).
  • The Resenter: Oh boy. Hallam to Denison at the start and anyone who dares question him later. Denison and Lamont to Hallam. Neville to all "Earthies" and to Selene for being mentally faster than him. And that's just in our universe.
  • Sex as Rite-of-Passage: In the alternate universe, there are three kinds of gaseous people and a kind of solid people. The solid people are the merging — which is their analog of sex — of three gaseous people.
  • Space Is Magic: Written largely in response to this trope. Asimov once heard Robert Silverberg make up an isotope off the top of his head, Plutonium-186. When Asimov pointed out that said isotope does not and cannot exist, Silverberg responded "So what?" Asimov, who was never one to back down from a challenge (even a self-imposed one) decided to work out under what conditions Plutonium-186 could be possible. He concluded that it would have to be in an parallel universe where the laws of physics behaved differently than they do here (such as the strong force being a lot stronger than it is in our universe). He went on to figure out how such a universe would operate, and eventually developed his ideas into what he considered his most ambitious novel.
  • Speculative Fiction LGBT: set in a parallel dimension in which there are three distinct genders that also function as guilds/houses that one may be sorted into (logicals, emotionals, and parentals). One of the main characters is Dua, who is split between the genders and so a version of non-binary (which in the setting is also naturally divergent).
  • Starfish Aliens: Neither of the alien species is physically described in much detail, but the soft ones are apparently amorphous or gas-like, have three genders, and appear to be photosynthetic.
  • Super Breeding Program: One in each universe, as it turns out, though the one in ours is officially over and done with.
    • Officially is the word. Selene points out that it's not easy to ban scientific research, and the moon has a number of scientists researching the subject. There is some suspicion about her being a descendant of a test subject from the original attempt.
  • Take a Third Option: In the third part, "...Contend in Vain?", the protagonist discovers another method of generating energy that can be used to cancel the physics-changing side effects of the Electron Pump, conveniently avoiding the choice between dooming Earth to power shortages and dooming the sun to go supernova.
  • They Called Me Mad!: Most of the major achievements of the characters — proving the plutonium isotope is otherworldly, discovering the flaw in the Pump, Dua intuiting how to leave messages for the humans — are made to humiliate their enemies. Denison and Selene manage to earn their victory by being willing to set aside their grudges — Denison decides to let Lamont get the glory of humiliating Hallam, for example.
  • Title Drop: The title of the book and the titles of each of the three parts are said by the first part's main character in one quote ("Against stupidity, the gods themselves contend in vain," first said by the German playwright Friedrich Schiller).
  • Title Drop Chapter: The second of the three parts is titled "The Gods Themselves". The three titles form a quotation that is the epigraph of the whole book.
  • Tomato in the Mirror: Throughout the second part, Dua has learned about how the Electron Pump the Hard Ones have been creating with the aid of beings from another universe (humans) will doom that universe to destruction — and eventually begins attempting to sabotage the effort by sending the messages the first part's characters use to discover the flaw. At the end of the part, when "her" triad-mates save her from death and reveal that their destiny is to combine into a Hard One, "her" last individual thought is to realize that "she"/they were the Hard One who was the Evil Genius driving the project forward.
  • Translation Convention: the entire second section, told about and by Starfish Aliens. The Earth/Moon language used in the other two sections may also be an example.
  • Treachery Cover Up: Hallam is guilty of stealing the work of other scientists, ruining at least two careers due to personal grudges, and hindering all attempts to save Earth from a supernova for the sake of prestige. In the end, it is mentioned that Hallam will lose most of his influence, but will probably retain some honorable position and won't be prosecuted... exposing the greatest genius of humanity as a total fraud will cause too much damage to the prestige of science.
  • Triang Relations: Played with for the Soft Ones, since their family structure is this by necessity, and triads like to present themselves as Type 8 (everyone equally involved with everyone else). As Odeen reflects, this is seldom the case in practice, and his own two partners, Tritt and Dua, get along worse with each other than with him.
    • More straightforward human case: Selena, Neville and Ben.
  • Two Beings, One Body: the aliens merge three into one as a part of their reproductive cycle.
  • Unusual Chapter Numbers
    • Part 1, "Against Stupidity...", starts with chapter 6 before flashing back to chapters 1-5 (i.e. the story is told out of order, but the chapters are numbered in strict chronological order).
    • In Part 2, "... The Gods Themselves...", all the chapters (except for the last one) are split into three parts (i.e. 1a, 1b, 1c, then 2a, etc.); each letter corresponds to Odeen, Dua, or Tritt, and all of the action in each subchapter takes place at roughly the same time.
  • The War of Earthly Aggression: Potentially brewing between Earth and the lunar colony.
  • We Will Not Have Appendixes in the Future: The eugenics-conscious moon separatists want to use genetic engineering to get rid of various organs they consider unnecessary, like molars (the artificial food of the Moon requires little chewing).
  • When Dimensions Collide: Because the matter transferred by the Electron Pump alters cosmological constants, it will eventually cause Earth's sun to go nova.
  • Xenofiction: Asimov had been criticized in the past for not having aliens or sex in his novels. This one has aliens, sex, and alien sex. And very alien aliens, at that.