Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Nothing is for Free - The Gods Themselves

I ran into a recording by famed science fiction author Isaac Asimov and he mentioned that while he felt that he would be known for the "Foundation" series, he felt that he would like to be known for "The Gods Themselves".  I had checked out the "Foundation" trilogy back in my high school days and had reread them a couple of times.  But I had never really ventured into his other works.  Asimov tends to be on the dry side and I find that I have to be in the mood for his style.  Well, it just so happens that I was in the mood for his style and decided to seek out this book and see what I thought about it.

First thing I discovered was that I needed to review some of my knowledge of nuclear fission and fusion.  It's part of the main conceit of the novel and while I know a little about the subject, I was pretty rusty.  But after I got some on-line reading done on the subject I was OK.  For the most part the science aspect of the novel didn't go over my head.  Asimov usually has a layman character around who needs some additional explanation, so I often got up to speed.

The basic story for the novel revolves around the appearance of a massive amount of free energy.  All we have to do is leave some Tungsten hanging around, and a portal to another universe opens. The tungsten is traded for a radioactive and unstable bit of plutonium.  But this Plutonium creates a large amount of radiation as it decomposes in our universe (it is very stable where it came from).  This exchange with the parallel universe is wonderful, we get free energy in exchange for Tungsten we weren't using anyway.  Of course we all know that if something is too good to be true, then it probably isn't true.

This isn't free at all.  Each time the exchange is made, other things come from the parallel dimension.  Most importantly the actual laws that define that universe cross into ours and start affecting things.  Most dangerous is the idea that our sun would start being affected by these laws causing it to become unstable and explode.   Yeah, not a good thing.  The problem is that no one wants to acknowledge this or do anything about it because they love their free energy!

The novel is split into three parts.  The first deals with a scientist bent on proving that the exchange is causing more harm than good.  The middle section takes us to the parallel universe and delves into what is driving those beings to make the exchange in the first place.  The last section deals with the people of the colonized moon and how their advances in technology may save us all - unless they have another agenda...

This split carries the basics of the story from one section to the other, but there are interesting sub-themes to each section.  Most of the first part is driven by the ego's of the scientists involved.  The discovery of the exchange would not have been made without one of the scientists feeling like he was the little fish in the big pond.  In turn, the danger of the exchange would not have been discovered, unless the scientist hadn't been snubbed by the illustrious founder of the exchange.  The second section offers us a view of life forms that are interdependent and yet are very much separated.  This creates a struggle between the beings, and one that is resolved in an interesting way.  This theme of connection also goes back to how our universes are connected and what happens in one can affect what happens in the other.  The final section on the moon makes a statement about colonial attitudes and how the one-time colony now wants to break away.

I wasn't too surprised to find that the three sections were published separately.  This makes some sense, as each one carries it's own theme in addition to the overriding theme dealing with the "free energy".  What this reminded me was that good science fiction (and I'm not talking about Space Opera - like "Star Wars") is about ideas and themes.  This book is heavy on the dialogue and there really isn't much action.  What action there is happens in laboratories and testing environments.  The middle portion of the book is the most entertaining to read, because it deals with the alien beings and their perceptions.  It's more of a character story with some mystery thrown in, and the alien perspective is intriguing.  That's not to say that the bookend sections are weak, but they are very focused on ideas over action.  I was in the mood for that, so I didn't mind.  But I know it's one of the things that some readers find dull about Asimov.

"The Gods Themselves" is a novel rich in ideas, and it made me wonder if this kind of fiction is still popular.  People don't seem to like to slow down and think so much now.  And most of the books about writing I have read stress the movement of plot, the importance of action and the feeling that if you have a theme or two in your story, it's a lucky accident.  Reading something like this reminds me that books don't always have to fall in such a narrow view.

Do you think a book can balance multiple themes without become a talky bore?  Is science fiction better when it focuses on ideas over plot?  What do you think of this book or Asimov in general?

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