Book Review: The Gods Themselves

This isn’t exactly a fair book review. I’ve read Isaac Asimov’s The Gods Themselves before, and even though it was years ago I remembered it pretty well. So when I saw it at a used book sale I deliberately picked it up again.

The Gods Themselves is really three novellas in sequence, loosely tied together by a MacGuffin piece of free-energy technology that, of course, is never really free. The first section is a rather typical-for-Asimov discussion between scientists resenting the success of the inventor/​discoverer of said technology that’s basically a snapshot of academia. This is all right, and actually has some surprisingly relevant insights about modern environmentalism, but it’s not something that would pull me back for another reading.

The third section is a fair bit more interesting, imagining the culture and politics of a small lunar society (i.e. humans have colonized the moon). This kind of worldbuilding is one of my favorite things to find in science fiction (and fantasy), where it’s not just big things but little things that are different too.

But it’s the second section that really makes The Gods Themselves stand out. In it, Asimov spends time on one of the few alien species of his career, a photosynthetic lifeform with three sexes, living in a universe with significantly different laws of physics, faced with their species’s own energy crisis. The three sexes are heavily differentiated and segregated, both biologically and culturally, and the story is told from each member of a “triad” (roughly, a three-way marriage) in turn.

This section is why The Gods Themselves stuck with me, because it’s relatively rare for alien species to be really different in science fiction. Even when a “third gender” comes up, the aliens are usually still humanoid; even when there are aquatic species, that at most affects their mythology and some of their metaphor.

Certainly this species isn’t entirely divorced from humanity: Asimov assigns the “left-Rational” sex masculine pronouns and the “mid-Emotional” sex feminine pronouns. The “right-Parentals” are also given masculine pronouns, and while I’d guess Asimov meant that to be subversive it feels like a rather safe choice now. (I would have used custom pronouns for all three sexes.1)

None of the three sections, not even the second, escapes the criticism of one of my friends:

I think the thing that turns me off the most about Isaac Asimov is that his version of the future seems to consist almost entirely of austere pretentious white dudes and that’s just not a future I want to imagine

Asimov certainly does have his favored image of his scientist and technician main characters in most of his stories, who are pretty much all austere, pretentious, white, and male by default. The third section of The Gods Themselves brings up the importance of intuition in scientific discovery (yes!) and then assigns it as a “soft” skill to the only female character in the section, who is not formally a scientist (aack). When it comes time to write up a paper on their discoveries, the primary scientist character don’t even offer to list her as a co-author.

But despite that I still enjoyed this one (unlike, say, Foundation). Asimov takes a physics “what if” and runs with it, then a biological one, then a socio-political one. And that’s refreshing when I’ve been finding all sci-fi and fantasy very same-y lately. So—especially for writers interested in writing non-human species—I recommend The Gods Themselves, as an example of both how our biases come out in our writing and of what’s possible beyond them.

  1. Word choice: “sex” vs. “gender”. I’m using “sex” here because biology and reproduction does come into the story, and because I flirted with the idea that one of the alien characters is actually trans. I’m nearly certain Asimov did not intend that, but even beyond that I ultimately discarded it as being too cheap an explanation for the gendered society described in the story. ↩︎