Tags: Science Fiction, What-If, Cautionary Tale
Through an accident of science, Earth now has a seemingly unlimited supply of energy, enough to last a trillion years. Three people — an outcast scientist, a rebellious alien in a parallel world, and a lunar-born human Intuitionist — are aware that this boon to humankind could cause an imbalance in the nature of nuclear attraction that will cause the sun to explode with enough force to destroy the entire solar system and beyond, in perhaps as little as a few years.
As a rule, Asimov is a plot-driven (rather than character-driven) storyteller, although he will sometimes create a character in his story whose nature will push the plot forward. In this novel, the pettiness of a radiochemist named Hallam is the driving force that leads to first the discovery, then the use, of an altered radioisotope that is (so far as anyone can tell) created in a parallel universe whose physical laws are different from our own. He becomes known as the Father of the Proton Pump, the man who liberated the world from ever having to worry about energy consumption again. Anyone, of any description, who speaks against him or his miraculous invention is ruined, academically, politically, or otherwise, because the world will not allow anyone to question this seemingly unending source of free energy.
The middle portion of the book is set on the “para-world” where this strange metamorphosis of isotopes take place. This section causes the most difficulty for many readers, as it depicts forms of life that are quite literally alien to our thinking. Beings that feed directly on energy, able to change their shape and thickness almost like amoebae, and gathered in triads formed of a Parental, a Rational, and an Emotional. There is a temptation to ascribe to these the Freudian aspects of id, ego, and superego, but that application is imperfect for many reasons. There is, however, a fascinating relationship between these “Soft Ones” and the few “Hard Ones” on their world, and it appears almost as a highly complex slave/master dynamic, as though the Hard Ones were some variation of deity. A clue might be found in the subtitles of the three sections of the book. The first, where Hallam creates his engine of destruction, is called “Against Stupidity…” The second, with these aliens, is “…The Gods Themselves…” The third, taking place on Earth’s moon, is “…Contend In Vain?”
Without spoilers, let me offer the tease that, within this concluding chapter, Asimov puts forth a fascinating possible explanation for the creation of the universe, although to say why would be cheating.
In any “hard sci-fi” work, where the what-if speculations are limited to uses of science which are (or might be, under the right circumstances) as factual as the state of the art may provide, that science must be explained well enough for a reasonably intelligent person to understand it in order for the plot to unfold. Asimov, himself a scientific mind of considerable caliber, was never one to skimp on supporting the theoretical aspects of his books. He certainly does so here, and I’m going to have to admit that I’m not nearly as bright as I thought I was, because I don’t get it! Perhaps I could say that I have a general feel for the concept, but the specifics elude me terribly.
I call this a cautionary tale, however, because at the very least, it qualifies as an excellent example of what fellow author Robert Heinlein would call TANSTAAFL. Pronounced “tahn-stah-full”, the acronym stands for There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch. Much like the legendary sale of the bridge of Brooklyn fame, “limitless, safe, free energy for all” is something only a sucker would buy. In 1972, when this book was first published, the “ecology movement” (as it was first described) was still in its infancy, and world dependence upon fossil fuels was just blossoming into the public’s eye. I’ve found no evidence that Asimov had that particular ax to grind; in fact, Asimov attributes the novel’s beginning to a casual chat with fellow author Robert Silverberg. The idea, however, remains — particularly in light of recent studies in climate change.
All in all, a good, solid story, with the added benefit of a fascinating bit of ethnography in the middle section, as we get a chance to look at a very different alien culture. (You might be amused with the names of the three aliens in the triad — Odeen, Dua, and Tritt. In Asimov’s native Russian, the numbers one, two, and three are один два три.) Well worth reading.