Decades into his career, Asimov won his first real Hugo with The Gods Themselves (“The Mule” later won a retro Hugo and I arbitrarily handed a Fake Hugo to The Naked Sun). I grew up obsessed with Asimov, so I was excited to read this, his most highly recognized novel (awards-wise, that is), and his own personal favorite. And…boy, was I disappointed.
There are some interesting concepts here. In the late twenty-first century, beings from another dimension, where the laws of physics differ significantly, contact our planet and tell us how to build a Pump between the universes that will give us an endless supply of energy. The lucky scientist who makes contact, Frederick Hallam, turns out to be a jealous jackass who uses his notoriety to control the scientific community, and one of the main themes seems to be the sociological perils of science. The novel is divided into three parts. The first tells of a young upstart scientist Lamont who fears that the Pump might change the laws of our universe and cause the sun to explode within a few years. Lamont tries to contact and communicate with the interdimensional aliens, but he must also face the wrath of Hallam. The second takes us to the other side of the Pump, where a group of odd, abstract aliens work to grow up and form a family (and also consider the potential dangers of the Pump). The final third moves the action to the moon, as a group of scientists continue to work on the Pump problem (and we get a “Lunie” society that’s not quite as exciting as Heinlein’s).
There are a lot of intriguing ideas and concerns here. I think Asimov is at his best when he introduces a plausible technology (robots) and then explores the ethical and practical limitations of that technology (his three laws). The Pump almost qualifies, but it’s a bit too far out (and the eventual solution to the problem, while clever, is far too easy). Not much happens here. We learn that Hallam is an incredible jerk, aliens are really weird, and sex on the moon is fun (for some reason, reading sex scenes in Asimov is like listening to your grandparents talk about sex). I just wasn’t as enthralled. The pitfalls of scientific personality clashes is an interesting topic, but that section drags on too long. But, I found the alien section to be far worse. Yes, they’re appropriately weird (tri-sexual blobs with wildly different levels of intelligence and rationality), but that doesn’t necessarily make them interesting. And, as weird as they are, their problems are all too human. Family drama and wild sex with amorphous blobs just didn’t interest me.
I certainly don’t mind that Asimov is trying to stretch his horizons, but I still prefer his classic robot and Foundation stories. There’s nothing wrong with being good at what you do. I’d chalk The Gods Themselves up more as an interesting and fun experiment than an award-sweeping masterpiece.