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Ossus Library Index Science Fiction Index


A novel by Isaac Asimov (1972, Del Rey)

Humans and beings from another universe attempt to stop Earth's sun from exploding, after tapping an unlimited energy supply.



3 stars

Read February 4th to 8th, 2003 for the second time  
    An incredibly alien middle section, flanked by typical human interaction at the beginning and end.

Asimov is so easy to read. His plots are so straight-forward, with very little in the way of twists and deceptions. The entire plot is played on simple logic, and the idea that enough digging and research will provide all the information needed to solve the problem presented at the beginning.

The book is divided into three sections, based on a quote from the playwright Schiller: "Against stupidity, the gods themselves, contend in vain." From the first time I read this book, two decades ago or so, I remembered virtually nothing of the first section. It describes a disgruntled and disillusioned physicist who tries to discredit his nemesis, self-proclaimed inventor of the electron pump. This pump provides energy from the radioactive decay of a substance from another universe. Lamont reasons that the para-people (from the para-universe) must be very intelligent, and did all of the work on the electron pump. All Hallam's people did was decipher enough of it to build the contraption.

This section was very technical, about protons, neutrons, pions, and other atomic particles. I think most of it was understandable, but people not versed in physics would probably have to read several passages many times over to figure it out.

The problem with the electron pump, as Lamont discovers, is that it causes the laws of the para-universe to seep into ours, strengthening the strong nuclear force between molecules, and weakening theirs. This will cause the sun to explode in a matter of years or decades. Nobody takes him seriously, as he is not in Hallam's favor. His colleague, however, working on the para-language, manages to communicate a little with those on the other side. They receive a message saying that the pump is bad -indicating that at least somebody on the other side realizes what will happen.

At the time the book was written, Asimov was free to speculate about quasars, objects that have only recently been linked to black holes in distant galaxies. His physicists said that perhaps other exploding suns from other cross-overs between the universes were the cause. Interesting explanation -and who is to say that it's completely wrong!

Lamar seems like he is in a real university environment, something that Asimov undoubtedly knew well. The politics were terrible, a boss who doesn't know much, but has prestige and power to back him up, riding on past achievements. I wonder if he used somebody as a model...

The first section is also rather brief, with Asimov giving us a very concise representation of everything that has happened and is happening. It is really amazing to see how much information he can put into so few words.

That is also his weakness as a writer. There is very little drama in the text, as just about everything is dialog, very logical, and although it may be full of emotion, there is very little to set the physical stage, either for the characters or the setting. The characters are all very intelligent (though the women seem whiny, as in part three), but almost everything is vocalized. We really needed to see some thought processes.

That is completely rectified in the middle section, where the best part about it is getting into the minds of the triad. Dua the Emotional was so clearly that. Odeen the rational was an expert brain, and Tritt the Parental had the motherly instinct down perfectly -talk about a one-track mind.

Of the middle section, I remembered the aliens being very, very alien, and I remembered the secret that ends this section. Even this time, I was struck by how alien Dua, Odeen and Tritt were. It was totally amazing.

The minds that we visit are used almost exclusively to show us about this alien culture. We are taught about them through their experiences and thoughts -which seem very natural- and not through exposition. This is the way I wish every culture could be introduced!

This section also contains what Asimov describes as his only explicit sex scene. I believe the story goes that somebody wondered why he never had a true sex scene in his books (he has plenty of talk about sex, though...), so he challenged himself to get as explicit as he could. However, unless you knew the aliens, you would never recognize it as such! It is very descriptive, probably pornographic from their viewpoint (Odeen would be embarrassed!), but so entirely alien! In a way, since both Odeen and Tritt are the equivalent of male, it also contains a gay element. He gets away with it, through all sorts of censors, also! It's amazing. He also has a scene where Dua melts with the rocks, which is essentially a masturbation scene. Rather kinky, if you think about it.

The conclusion to the middle section was very exciting, as Dua learns more and more about the new energy source, and is determined to sabotage it because it will blow up the star on the other side. Her lack of understanding of humans was funny, as she wondered why it didn't stop after she warned them. The only complaint I have about this section is the ease with which Dua translated the messages, sensing their meaning.

I also loved Tritt's one-track mind. They needed a baby, and Tritt whined about it constantly, the way he complained that they needed to melt more often so he could conceive. I loved all of them, from every viewpoint.

The Triads reminded me of the Tines, from a book I recently read, A Fire Upon the Deep, which of course came much later. The group mentality was what really caught me, how they were so alien, but these ones were peaceful, and really quite different.

There was also the mystery of the Hard Ones. We only met one of them for a long while, but since I knew the secret, it was very much more fulfilling this time. Even so, I only figured out that Dua/Odeen/Tritt was Estwald near the end. I find it incredible that they could perform so many complex calculations in the small amount of time it took to melt, which is when they formed an amnesiatic Hard One for a short time. I wonder how much his experience was missed when Dua refused to melt after a time! Since the soft ones were only immature Hard Ones, they really needed to keep melting. Of course, when they formed the Hard One, all of Dua's resistance was destroyed...

And so we come to the third section, where we think everybody really must "contend in vain." I remembered the idea of tapping a baby universe, perhaps causing a Big Bang in there, and of the continuous attention brought to Selene's non-sagging breasts, since she was born and grew up in the Lunar environment.

I have always liked the idea of removing clothing when unnecessary, except for constraining "swinging" body parts or sensitive ones. However, I think Asimov ignores a very large part of human nature, which is fashion. Even if clothing was virtually non-existent, people would still create fashion in at least painting their bodies. I really think we would not be as logical in it as he describes.

Once again, returning to humans, I was struck at how little thoughts we got. Everything was formulated by talking, in a logical manner, between very intelligent people. Again, I think we needed a lot more thoughts.

Another of Hallam's outcasts, Dr. Denison went to the Moon to restart his career, but finds himself reporting to the Commissioner, as well as working with a Lunar separatist. This man, Selene's sex-partner (different customs exist on the Moon, much to the distaste of Earthly visitors), dreams of opening a gateway to another universe for both infinite energy and for transferring momentum, so that he can move the Moon away from an oppressive Earth. This concept is not new, but it does provide a little bit of conflict in that environment.

The story focuses on Denison's friendship with Selene, however, and they get some really nice dialog. She also takes him to see some low-gravity acrobatics, cool sports, and gliding across a Lunar hill on the surface in a spacesuit. I am sure he tried to use as much of the early Apollo information as possible, having written during that time.

Sex is also presented in this section, more due to the fact that Lunarites remove all unnecessary clothing, which titillates Denison. Selene's explanation that Earthmen would break something trying to have sex with a Lunar women misses the mark, however, as I am sure some sort of restraint, like a sleeping bag, could be used in order to start teaching him the proper methods... which she agrees to do in the end, anyway. Perhaps her grandmother actually did sleep with an Earthman.

The conclusion of the book is anti-climactic. Denison opens the gateway to another universe -a different one from the para-universe, and draws energy from there, allowing a balance of the changing laws of physics, since this new universe has laws in the opposite direction from the para-universe. What's brilliant about it is that eventually they will form a Big Bang in that other universe! I imagine, however, that they would have to study other effects, because other laws might seep in that we know nothing about. Denison also uncovers the plot to move the Moon, and makes it public. He writes a paper and becomes a hero.

It was all rather emotionless, and I wished for a return to Dua and Odeen and Tritt. They were most interesting, and although we didn't really need them to complete the story, they were definitely the best part about it. Overall, the book was rather fun, and it was more like a mystery that required solving. The first part posed the problem, the last part resolved it. The middle explained why the pump needed to exist in the first place, to feed those "people". I wish Asimov had dealt with more aliens in his books. This proves that he can do it amazingly.


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