The year is 2100 A.D.…
And Man no longer stands alone in the universe.
Now there are other worlds, other living beings. Alien beings who mate in threes and live on pure energy. New breeds of humans who have created their own environment and freed themselves from every social and sexual taboo.
Yes, it is the future of new worlds, ever-changing worlds. And yet among them there is still Earth.
Earth, where Man still strives to be the best. To advance himself beyond all other beings and their worlds. And this final, glorious step in mankind’s technical progress has been achieved: the discovery of an unlimited, non-polluting energy source.
But what seems to be progress may, in reality, end in complete tragedy.
Earth’s unlimited energy source is about to trigger unlimited destruction—and the end of a universe.
“A tour de force unlike anything Asimov has done before.…The Gods Themselves is definitive science fiction…well worth reading.”—Philadelphia Bulletin
This is Asimov’s personal favorite of all his novels, and with no little reason. It was his first “real” sf novel in nearly twenty years (Fantastic Voyage doesn’t count), and it proved that not only could he still write first-rate sf, but he could even write it about aliens and sex (two things he had often been accused of avoiding because he couldn’t handle them). It even won both a Hugo and a Nebula.
My own view of the book as a whole is rather less enthusiastic. The problem is this: Structurally, The Gods Themselves isn’t so much a single novel as a trilogy of novellas. The middle third (also called “The Gods Themselves”) is absolutely brilliant and without a doubt one of Asimov’s best half-dozen pieces of writing. (The other five I would say are “The Mule” in Foundation and Empire, “The Search by the Foundation” in Second Foundation, “The Last Question,” “The Ugly Little Boy,” and “The Bicentennial Man,” if anybody is curious.) It would be hard to praise this section too highly—the characters are well-drawn and unforgettable, particularly Dua, the aliens are fascinating and, well, alien, and so on and so on. (Now, of course, the aliens still seem rather human psychologically, which is a weakness. But it is a trivial weakness, on the whole.)
The first and third sections of the book, however, fall rather flat. Asimov likes to avoid telling a story in a straightforward chronological order, but this rarely works for me—and in few places does he involve himself in as complicated a chronological structure as he does in the first section, “Against Stupidity.” In particular, the chronological structure leaves one with the feeling that one isn’t reading the story per se but background to the story, which means that the actual “story” you’re left with is dull, especially compared with the background that explains it. Moreover, with one or two exceptions, the characters are forgettable. Although I wouldn’t call this part of the novel actually bad, it is certainly not first-rate and pales compared to what follows.
As for the third section, “Contend in Vain?,” it feels rather like an anticlimax because, again, it is less memorable than what proceeds it. It lacks most of the faults of the first section—the characters, the storytelling, the situations and plot, are all reasonable good and engaging. It is, in fact, distinctly better than “Against Stupidity,” and would be a good, solid Asimov story if it didn’t follow what it follows.
The main fault per se with this section is that it reads for much of it like a lunar travelogue such as Asimov was writing up in essay form for various general-interest magazines at about the same time. Again, this is somewhat distracting and seems irrelevant.
In particular, the sexual content of the third section is distracting and has an almost adolescent quality to it—the beauty of our heroine Selene’s bare breasts is constantly being pointed out, as is the fact that they look better than they would on Earth and we get to see them as we wouldn’t on Earth. The Moon’s sexual mores are harped on, and how they are so much better than the old puriantism of the Earth. It really has little to do with the plot, I think, and—particularly given the utter brilliance of how sex is handled in the second section—is a major distraction.
Other than that, there is little to hold against “Contend in Vain?” beyond the unfair comparisons to its more brilliant sibling.
What one is left with, then, is a very uneven trilogy. Although the brilliance of “The Gods Themselves” boosts enormously the impression of the entire book, that is offset to a large extent by the unevenness itself. While this book contains some of Asimov’s best fiction writing ever, I would be hard pressed to consider it his best novel as a whole.
The complete text of this novel is included in Other Worlds of Isaac Asimov.
One side note: Asimov indicates that one of his characters is a brilliant linguist by saying that he deciphered Etruscan. Actually, Etruscan is already deciphered in that we can read pretty much all the material in Etruscan that still exists. This is different from deciphering hieroglyphics or Linear B, which we couldn’t read at all. No, the problem with Etruscan is that such material as we have is very limited in scope, and so we don’t have a good sense of what the language was like as a whole and therefore what languages it may be related to. It’s clearly not Indo-European, but that’s about as much as we can reliably say.