This novel is composed of three novellas which have their own characters but share the same focus: the Electron Pump and the possibility that it’s damaging the Universe. Briefly (because Wikipedia has a thorough summary) the first part is about a young physicist named Lamont who finds himself relegated to the academic sidelines because he is in conflict with Hallam, the solidly average, though tenacious scientist who “invents” the Electron Pump (despite the fact that all the instructions for doing so came to him in messages from an alternate universe). Hallams power and influence is such that he destroys anyone who opposes him. Lamont suspects Hallam’s mediocrity and assumes he simply did the bidding of the beings in the para-Universe. He teams up with a linguist Bronowski to send messages of his own. Lamont hopes to convince the aliens in the para-Universe to stop the pump, but they get messages back asking the humans to stop the pump.
The third part picks up some 30 years after the discovery of the electron pump and the para-Universe. A minor character in the first part, Ben Denison immigrates to the moon. His scientific career suffered like Lamont’s did due to his opposition to Hallam since he too felt that the effect of the Electron Pump would eventually be devastating. The moon is his escape. He works with a Lunarite named Selene to build a one-way vent between a different alternate universe (different than the universe the electron pump works with) that not only provides energy, but more importantly reverses the affects (strengthening of the nuclear force) that the Electron Pump causes. There is a sideline plot where Barron Neville, a Lunarite scientist and partner to Selena motivates Denison to complete his work so that he can use the device to actually move the Moon away from Earth (possible only because the momentum would be transferred to the alternate universe). This motivation is revealed and wrapped up in the few last pages, though the suspicion is maintained since the beginning of part three. The suspense was more interesting than the ultimate reveal, specially since moving the moon seemed somewhat ridiculous.
Part two takes place in the para-Universe and is about the aliens who setup their end of the Electron Pump. Given that the physical laws of the para-Universe are different, this is a very different place indeed. Asimov came up with a truly alien race – a triad composed of three individuals – a Rational, an Emotional and a Parental which ultimately fuse to become a Hard One (which is the reveal at the conclusion of part two). It is the Hard Ones who run the show and maintain their end of the pump. The story follows the development of three Soft Ones who eventually form a triad and ultimately transform in a Hard One, namely the one in charge of their Electron Pump. It really is less about the pump and more about the triad itself. Its message seemed to me anyway that a strong emotional/intuitive component was necessary for the best scientists. This was reinforced in part three since Selene herself was a genetically modified human Intuitionist. Though not a scientist, she was still able to help Denison make his breakthrough by “feeling” what to do.
The Gods Themselves is a heavily dialog driven story – the only real exposition appearing in part two in the alien para-Universe simply because the place and the characters are so foreign it would be impossible to tell a story without it. At first I wasn’t looking forward to reading 100 pages of the completely alien side of establishing the Electron Pump. I think this is because the rules are all different with aliens – even different physical laws for the universe. With different rules it’s hard to anticipate what logically occurs next or know what shouldn’t happen. I can be too easy to “cheat” with aliens since the author can make up the rules as they go along. Also as a reader you can’t go on autopilot since the scenes and characters are so unfamiliar.
I was wondering what the book would be like without part two, since the story completes itself with the first and last parts just fine. The message of the power and mystery of intuition would be weakened without it, but more importantly it’s the alien part that makes this book unique. As an exercise in creating non-humanoid aliens in a universe that even has different physical laws than our own it is an impressive feat. Overall, I like more action in my stories but a good book nevertheless – a case study in imagining aliens and dialog over narration.
(Amazon) The Gods Themselves