‘The plutonium/tungsten can make its cycle endlessly back and forth between Universe and para- Universe, yielding energy first in one and then in another . . . Both sides can gain energy from what is, in effect, an inter-Universe Electron Pump.’
This piece of pseudo science is how the jumped-up radiochemist-cum-physicist Hallam in Asimov’s novel The Gods Themselves describes his supposed invention. The Electron Pump is the holy grail of physics – limitless energy at no cost – or is it? Not all scientists are convinced, but Nobel Prize-winning Hallam is such an idol of the masses that he is able to stifle all criticism at the expense of his critics.
The problem with the device is that it endangers the process of nuclear fusion in the Sun threatening an extinction level explosion. But who cares so long as we have limitless electricity without coal, oil and gas?
‘It is a mistake . . . to suppose that the public wants the environment protected or their lives saved . . . What the public wants is their own individual comfort.’
The novel divides into three parts. Part One, Against Stupidity, takes place here on Earth in the year 2070 and introduces us to Hallam and two young scientists, Ben Denison and Pete Lamont, who have their careers blighted for challenging Hallam’s authority. A piece of tungsten in a sealed jar changes mysteriously into ‘Plutonium 186’ – an impossible material according to the laws of our universe. The discovery leads to the Electron Pump and speculation about a para-universe, where the strong nuclear force (the force which binds the fundamental particles of matter) must be a hundred times stronger than here on Earth. It is the intelligent species of this other universe who are initiating these changes to the atomic mass and charge of the tungsten, thereby producing energy.
‘ “He’s called Estwald,” said Odeen. “. . . He’s responsible for that new thing they’ve got . . . The Positron Pu – You wouldn’t understand, Tritt. It’s going to revolutionise the whole world.’
Part Two, The Gods Themselves, takes the reader to the alternate universe where the inhabitants, seemingly more intelligent and advanced than humans are nevertheless facing problems, scientific and ethical, not unlike those in our reality. The intelligent species of this para-universe is one of Asimov’s triumphs, beings whose family and breeding unit is a triad consisting of ‘left Rational’, ‘right Parental’, and ‘mid Emotional’, and whose objective is for themselves to produce by ‘melting’ one of each before ‘passing on’. But Dua isn’t a conforming Emotional; she is rational too, which makes her something of a rebel. On this world, there are also ‘the Hard Ones’ who seem to do all the work and the science while the triads laze around ‘eating’ energy. The Hard Ones have their Pump too – but what exactly is involved in ‘passing on’?
‘The purpose [of the cosmeg pump stations] will be not so much to use the energy for practical purposes, as to counteract the changes in field intensities introduced by the Electron Pump.’
Part Three, Contend in Vain, is set on the Moon, a generation on from Part One, and concerns a sort of romance between an elderly Denison and Selene Lindstrom, a lunar-born ‘tour guide’. Aside from their genuine liking for each other, both have their competing agendas not unrelated to the arguments that took place in Part One. Is there a way of countering the negative effects of the Electron Pump? Surely, if there are two universes, there must be more?
The Gods Themselves is not – as a cohesive piece of writing – one of Asimov’s better novels. The beginning is a bit muddled and its conclusion is unsatisfactory. However, despite its shortcomings, it has an appeal of its own for any sci-fi fan. It is one of Asimov’s most imaginative stories. The Electron Pump and the sex triad of the para-universe join the Positronic Brain, the Three Laws of Robotics and Psychohistory as two of Asimov’s great contributions to sci-fi literature. Whether intentional or not, there is an ambiguity about the title which gives the narrative a dual focus. Are the intelligences of the para-universe the real gods as the sub-title in Part Two implies? or could it be that Asimov is satirising the petty squabbles among scientists who consider themselves little short of divine?