Mimsy Review: The Gods Themselves
He remembered the name. He remembered when he had first heard the name. It was the time when the little-left had grown old enough to begin changing shape voluntarily. (What a great day! “Come, Odeen, quickly! Annis is all oval and hard! All by himself, too. Dua, look!” And they had rushed in. Annis was the only child then. They had had to wait so long for the second. So they rushed in and he was just plastered in the corner. He was curling at himself and flowing over his resting place like wet clay. Odeen had left because he was busy. But said, “Oh, he’ll do it again, Tritt.” They had watched for hours and he didn’t.)
Isaac Asimov meets with the environmentalists, and has them all shot.
“Against stupidity, the gods themselves contend in vain.” Asimov titles his chapters with that phrase, and dedicates his book “To mankind--and the hope that the war against folly may someday be won, after all.”
This is about folly in science, but also about trust in science, or trust that technological advancement not only can fix the problems we’ve made for ourselves, but that it must.
While I’ll try to avoid them as much as possible, a review of a book this good, and that raises questions this important, cannot but include spoilers. If you don’t like spoilers I strongly recommend buying the book and reading it first. This is one of the best science fiction stories I’ve read in a long time.
Energy for nothing
Mankind has found the perfect energy source. Unlimited, non-polluting, there is more than enough energy for everyone in the world.
But it would be safer to say that mankind didn’t find the energy source, the energy source found mankind. The Electron Pump exchanges tungsten-186 from our world for plutonium-186 from theirs. The problem is that the word “pump” implies that we have some sort of control over it, and we don’t. We leave tungsten out, and eventually it gets replaced with plutonium-186.
When the plutonium-186 comes here, it slowly becomes more energetic, and powers the world, before becoming stable old tungsten-186 again.
Along with the initial exchanges also came some plans for building the pump: a device to exchange matter between universes. That’s where the tungsten is going and where the plutonium is coming from. The pump makes the exchange easier. They send us plutonium; it becomes tungsten; we send it back.
But the pump and the bureaucracy around it hides the fact that whoever is doing the exchange is the one in charge, and that is whoever is on the other side of the pump. They choose when to make the exchanges. We allow them to do so, in exchange for plutonium-186.
Their universe has different physical laws than ours. In theirs, plutonium-186 is stable but tungsten-186 is unstable. In their universe, tungsten-186 converts to plutonium-186; they send it to us, it becomes tungsten-186 again, and we send it back. The only loss is an exchange of electrons. We get their electrons and they get ours.
The end of the world
Therein lies the problem: as we exchange electrons, our universe inherits their universe’s laws (and, presumably, vice versa). Their strong nuclear interaction is something like a hundred times stronger than ours is. This makes fusion much more likely and more powerful. As long as the pump keeps pumping, our nuclear reaction is going to get stronger and stronger.
And eventually our sun will explode, because the sun is a giant ball of nuclear fusion.
Current theory holds that the exchange of natural laws will happen so slowly that this will only happen long after the sun dies anyway. But Peter Lamont thinks that the assumptions made to calculate that were wrong: that they were deliberately chosen to make pumping look safe. When he changes the assumptions, not only does the theory of pumping start to make more sense, but it also makes it look like the sun is going to explode in the next few decades, not trillions of years in the future.
The interplay between the psychology of believing that the world could die any moment, and the psychology of believing what is easiest to believe is the main thread of “The Gods Themselves.” The folly is not just on the side of those who want to keep the pump going. Those who want to stop it are also capable of folly--or at least, what Asimov says is folly.
Because now that we have free energy, there is no way that anyone is going to convince us that the energy is going to destroy the world.
This book consists of three parts, each the story of a different person or persons, and each subtly and not-so-subtly interrelated. Peter Lamont takes up the bulk of the first part, discovering, through pig-headed resentment, that the pump might be dangerous. He even tries to communicate with the “para-men” from the “para-universe” to find out if they know anything. But he is a shrill Cassandra, and no one listens to him. He presents his findings in a way that ensures he will not be listened to. At one point he even does so deliberately.
The second part goes back to the para-universe, and here Asimov excels at creating an alien world without resorting to a fake alien language. He describes the para-men in normal terms, even going so far as giving them gender pronouns that are only male and female. But the strength of his vision and his writing is such that this strengthens the alien nature of this strange world.
Finally, we go to the moon, where an earlier critic of the pump runs away in the hopes of restoring his scientific career. Asimov’s descriptions of humans on the moon fits well with John Campbell’s maxim that the best science fiction could be printed in a magazine of the time period it takes place in. “No gee-whiz, just take the technology for granted.”
There’s a strong subtheme about growing up, leaving the womb, and advancing in this story. That is, I think, part of Asimov’s theme that technological advance, while it doesn’t necessarily solve problems, makes them less relevant. Once we evolve to a new state, whether it be a new paradigm or a new way of looking at old problems, the old problems become less important. They may not disappear, but they are not the crises they once appeared to be.
In “The Gods Themselves”, Asimov seems to be addressing scientists who cry “danger” without providing any solution. He wrote this book in the early seventies, when there were certainly enough scientists claiming that pollution would cause the world’s climate to drastically deteriorate by the end of the decade. Nuclear energy ran the risk of destroying the world. There were crises everywhere.
Asimov appears to have faith in technological advancement to get us out of such problems. He doesn’t just chide the pump’s makers for making assumptions based on best-case scenarios. He also chides Lamont for crying “the end of the world” without providing any solutions. There is no energy source now other than the pump. There is no pollution, no energy shortage. Everyone has as much energy as they need.
How can any scientist possibly expect the world to give that up based on what are, basically, worst-case assumptions? Crying danger without a solution is itself the utmost in folly. Lamont wants to turn the pumps off. That is not a solution. You might as well ask people to use less gasoline, or eat less fat.
They aren’t going to do it unless a better alternative is found. Any scientist that decries the use of gasoline is a fool unless they also provide a solution that does not involve sacrifice.
Now, Asimov’s faith in science is not that the perfect solution will be found. There is never a perfect solution. Each new solution comes with its own problems. We need to be open to those problems, and look for solutions to those problems, without throwing out the solution itself. Fear of new solutions will cause the world to stagnate, and is itself more dangerous than any poorly-conceived technological advancement.
I don’t know that I agree with him. Sometimes our folly is so strong that we can’t do anything except stop acting stupid. But he is in one sense right: trying to convince people to give up luxury is doomed to failure, and telling them that the world is going to end if they don’t only makes it less likely that they’ll listen.
Beyond that, this is just plain a really good book. The characters are extraordinarily well done, the characterizations believable, the story interesting, and the questions it raises are necessary questions that we must face.