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This was the 20th winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel.
This review was originally published at The Nameless Zine in August 2020.
1973's winner of the Hugo for Best Novel is not generally remembered as one of the Worldcon-going science fiction community's best choices. Many people have suggested that Asimov won because he was particularly loved and admired but hadn't written science fiction for a long while, marking this a welcome return.
All the sf works for which he's best known—three Galactic Empire novels, the original Foundation trilogy, the first two Lije Baley books, even the Lucky Starr books for kids—had been published in the fifties. A decade and a half after the most recent of all of those, Asimov had only given us a single new science fiction novel: Fantastic Voyage, in 1966. This was therefore seen as a welcome return and it won all three major awards: the Hugo, the Nebula and the Locus.
It's also an unusual Asimov novel, one I was surprised to find that I hadn't read. Asimov was one of the first sf authors I devoured, along with Heinlein and Simak, and I'd worked through all the books I mentioned above, and more. However, I'd somehow let this one slip by, so I was happy to remedy that for this project.
Dr. Asimov himself thought it his best novel, perhaps because of the reasons why it's unusual. It features aliens, for a start, and alien aliens too, in a way he hadn't ever done before. John Campbell, the editor of Astounding, had rejected one of his stories early in his career, because the aliens were portrayed as being superior to the humans in the story. Not wanting to write stories in which aliens were always weaker to humans, he avoided the subject entirely.
These aliens are fascinating and this middle section reads unlike anything I have read from either Asimov or any member of sf's old guard. It's clearly a more interesting read than the two sections that bookend it and maybe that's another reason why Asimov won the Hugo and other awards for this.
They're examples of amoeboid life and they live in a parallel universe to us in social structures built on triads. Two members of the triad are male with the third female, if we can adopt those terms in this context, given that it would be more appropriate to invent three new genders to represent the roles each third of the triad holds within its relationship. One male is Rational, the female is Emotional and the second male is Parental. Sex between them is literal merging, as these creatures can even merge with rock, while food is energy. While not every member of this species is intelligent (Parentals are particularly unintelligent), the species as a whole is highly advanced.
And, as unseen "para-men", they find a way to interact with our universe in the opening third of the book. A sample of tungsten in a laboratory is found to have been changed into plutonium 186, an isotope that cannot exist in our universe naturally. Investigation leads to the understanding that it was put there deliberately by the denizens of a universe in which the laws of nature are different to ours. This leads to the development of the Electron Pump, through which matter is transferred between universes, generating cheap and endless energy for both.
As you might imagine, this first section is about scientific discovery and the joy at the sheer potential of the new. However, it's also fundamentally concerned with consciousness of reputation. It's not just the work, it's how you'll be remembered for the work. Perception of reality is as important as reality itself, if not more so. This makes for rather uncomfortable reading, because the good stuff, as it were, is constantly cheapened. It reads like a triumph of science but a thinly veiled attack on scientists, epitomised in a man named Hallam, who gets all the credit for doing some of the work.
The best bits of the first section to my mind are the way in which one man, Lamont by name, questions this. He believes that there's a big catch to all that cheap energy, namely that it'll lead to the explosion of our sun, but he has to know more about the process and the laws of the other universe to prove it. This leads to a lot of interdisciplinary cross-pollination, mixing chemistry with other sciences as varied as linguistics, history, physics and politics. Asimov was a polymath and there's genuine delight within the voice he writes with, even if not all of it remotely holds up.
The second section runs parallel to the first in more ways than happening in a parallel universe. A particularly unusual triad is coming to the very same realisation that our rogue scientist is, but from the opposite direction. It leads to norms being challenged even in a universe where the norms are very different to ours and that's particularly fascinating. Dua, an Emotional, is often more like a Rational, and the conflict that generates highlights that her Rational, Odeen, and her Parental, Tritt, are unusual themselves.
The third section, back in our universe, takes Denison, a scientist who was involved in the early development of the Electronic Pump but long forgotten, to the Moon and a Lunar society that's wildly different to the Earth's. He's taken up Lamont's mindset and plans to find a proof outside Hallam's realm of influence. He does, but not in the way he expects and it's rather deus ex machina for my tastes.
Also, the cultural differences don't hold up much at all to modern eyes. The most overt difference, which seems to be completely overdone, is the lack of a nudity taboo, something that was omnipresent in science fiction during the sixties and seventies. It seems quaint nowadays. I'm no nudist, though I do understand the appeal in a non-sexual way. However, having been a member of science fiction fandom for some time, I'm pretty sure most of my fellow fans are the last people I'd care to see naked and the feeling may be mutual.
So, as a social study this fails and, as a scientific extrapolation with big stakes, it doesn't do particularly well. Only, in its middle third, does it really succeed, as a depiction of a truly alien society, the last thing that I ever expected to read in a novel with Asimov's name on the cover. It's an abidingly weird section that's closer to what was coming out of the New Wave at the time. Any way we cut it, it's an interesting but notably flawed Hugo winner.
As I've worked through these winners, I've worked my way through Jo Walton's An Informal History of the Hugos and her chapter on 1973 and the comments from others that follow it highlight how it wasn't a particularly great year for science fiction novels. Perhaps it was greater in other categories but the novel category was weak. While most fans seem to be currently accepting of the consensus that The Gods Themselves shouldn't have won, few agree on what should, with Robert Silverberg's Dying Inside the only suggestion of any consistency.
It's notable to me that, not only had I not read the winner in 1973 but none of the five other nominees either, with a single possible exception in Poul Anderson's There Will Be Time. What's more, I only have half of them on my shelves right now, which is telling. Compare that to one year earlier, where I own all five and had read two (now three), or one year later, where I own four of the five and had read three (soon to be four).
Next up: Rendezvous with Rama, one of the most important science fiction novels I've never read.
Last update: 30th September, 2020