The Gods Themselves by Isaac Asimov is quite literally a sandwich with indifferent white wonderbread on the outside and the most incredibly delicious gourmet filling on the inside. By this I mean that it is a three part book where the first part is middling and last part is ordinary (and that in the cricketing sense of the word, at times), but the central story is utterly brilliant. The overall result was enough to win both the Hugo (1973) and Nebula (1972) Awards for Best Novel.
The title comes from a quote by Friedrich Schiller from his play The Maid of Orleans: Against stupidity the gods themselves contend in vain. The quotation also serves as titles to each part, with the first part called ‘Against Stupidity … ‘, the second part ‘… The Gods Themselves …’ and the third part ‘… Contend in Vain?’
Part One tells the story of the alien-assisted discovery of the holy grail of physics and engineering – a cheap, clean and limitless source of energy. Extracting this energy does, however, have certain long-term consequences that could lead to the eventual destruction of earth as the sun goes nova aeons too early. As the authorities on Earth refuse to put an end to this new source of energy, a scientist tries to communicate with the aliens who helped to create the process, only to discover that they too suffer from similar issues of political and scientific inertia. In other words, stupidity also rules in that parallel universe.
Part Two takes place entirely in the parallel universe. Subtly and skilfully, Asimov describes alien physiology, psychology, science and culture. Nor does he simply create a race of vaguely hominid creatures. The comparison to humanity is done with a deft touch, focusing on aspects of the human psyche rather than the appearance of the human body. The aliens possess three genders: the Rational, who excels at logic and scientific reasoning; the Emotional, whose main characteristics are intuition and empathy; and the Parental, whose primary concern is bearing and raising children to continue the species. Those of the Rational and Parental genders are referred to as ‘he’ and those of the Emotional gender are called ‘she’. A full set of Rational, Emotional and Parental (or left, mid and right) form a triad which can procreate via a merging of their semi-substantial bodies (the particularly diaphanous Emotional acts as a kind of bridge or energy catalyst to facilitate the meld). So yes, not merely aliens, but alien sex too.
To reveal too much would be to spoil the story, but I’ll just share this quote as an example of how easily Asimov gives us information about something we could never imagine, far less visualise:
She had to eat, of course, but she liked it much better in the evening when there was very little food, but everything was a dim, deep red, and she was alone. Of course, she described it as colder and more wistful than it was when she talked to the others in order to watch them grow hard-edged as they imagined the chill – or as hard-edged as young Emotionals could. After a while, they would whisper about her and laugh at her – and leave her alone.
The small sun was at the horizon now, with the secret ruddiness that she alone was there to see. She spread herself out laterally and thickened dorso-ventrally, absorbing the traces of thin warmth. She munched at it idly, savoring the slightly sour, substanceless taste of the long wave lengths. (She had never met another Emotional who would admit to liking it. But she could never explain that she associated it with freedom; freedom from the others, when she could be alone.)
The portrayal of a female character (alien or human) with such depth and complexity who is central rather than peripheral to the plot is a rarity for the science fiction of that time. Another difference is the writing of alien sex as something natural, sacred and transformative rather than mere pornography for adolescent geeks. There is also the depiction of the culture and society of scientific research, struggling in both universes with questions of ethics and the pure search for knowledge, familiar in its failings among both humans and aliens. Finally, the science underlying the story is consistent and believable even though it is completely fictional.
It is said that Asimov considered this his best book. It is easy to see why.
The third part … well it all works out in the end, but by then you don’t really care because the best part of the book is already over.