Feb 12, 2017

Against Stupidity

Kirk slips between universes
"Perhaps it is best to leave the cherished experiences of our youth alone"

Galaxy Centaurus A, a "nearby" active core galaxy
with a "feeding" supermassive black hole
Perhaps, but I just read the first part of The Gods Themselves for the first time since I read it back in the 1970s. In his story, Asimov suggested that quasars might be due to a "leak" between two parallel universes. I never understood where the parallel universe of Asimov's imagination is supposed to be, but I suppose we are not meant to ask such questions. I'd first been exposed to the parallel universe idea by Star Trek.

cover art by Carolus Thole
Asimov imagined a parallel universe where the laws of physics are different. Asimov ran with the idea that if (for some unexplained "reason") there was an exchange of matter between two such universes then their physical laws would begin to merge and come to an equilibrium. In the case of our universe merging with a parallel universe where the strong nuclear force had a different strength, there could be dramatic consequences for stellar evolution. In particular, Asimov imagined that the sun might be triggered to explode, providing the dramatic thrust of his story.

cover art by Don Dixon
Sadly for Asimov, quasars are apparently caused by supermassive black holes gobbling up matter in evolving galaxies. The first such giant black hole to be recognized for what it was by humans was the one at the center of our own galaxy, a discovery made just a few years after Asimov wrote The Gods Themselves. This might be called Asimov's law of science fiction: never try to account for a natural phenomenon (such as quasars) by assuming alien creatures are responsible for it.

Anyone who reads Asimov's fiction will come away suspecting that Asimov had to deal with some real annoying colleagues during his time in the military, as a young science fiction writer and in academia. Dr. Fred Hallam, the "father of the Electron Pump" is portrayed as a living scientific legend, a man who has provided Earth with an endless supply of essentially free energy. And he's a dick.

John Campbell
Hallam seems to have been designed by Asimov so as to remind us of John Campbell, the editor of Astounding magazine who Asimov spent years trying to please just so he could get a few science fiction stories published. It was Campbell's narrow-minded views that led Asimov towards having an "all human galaxy" as the setting for his Foundation Saga.

The trigger for writing The Gods Themselves came in January 1971 and then Campbell died on July 11, 1971. I suppose Asimov could not resist putting some Campbell-like words into the mouth of Hallam: "I will not have mankind and its intelligence downgraded and I won't have para-men cast in the role of gods."

Talking to Aliens
do you speak alien?
As I write, many are wondering if the science fiction film Arrival might win an award. Arrival portrays efforts to establish communication between Earthlings and alien "heptapods". Asimov had to tackle the problem of alien-human communications in The Gods Themselves.

In the Ekcolir Reality
Original cover art by John Gaughan
In The Gods Themselves, Asimov imagined sending written text messages back and forth between two parallel universes. Incredibly, the entire world is depicted as having ignored the messages that were sent to us from the other universe. That is, until the protagonist in Part I of the novel (Lamont) suddenly decides that the messages should be deciphered. Huh? I guess we are supposed to imagine that Hallam was such a manipulative bastard that he could keep the entire population of Earth from studying the first messages ever received from another civilization.

In the Ekcolir Reality
Original cover art by Edmund Emshwiller
In the Exode Saga, I imagine that there are alien forces at work trying to suppress information about alien visitors to Earth. Those aliens are actually trying to prevent we humans from destroying ourselves.

In Part I of The Gods Themselves, Asimov depicted human stupidity as the main foe in the story. But what if there are some technologies, some types of scientific knowledge that are really too dangerous for we primates to have? Maybe we should expect benevolent aliens to try to save us from our own stupidity. In Part II of The Gods Themselves, Asimov finally gives us a close look at his imagined aliens from a parallel universe.
Related reading: "Below—Absolute!" by Harry Walton
Next: commentary on Part 2 of The Gods Themselves

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