The good doctor, over his lifetime, wrote more books than many people read in their lifetimes. Many were excellent explanations of various aspects of science written in language that a layman could understand. Some were good analyses of literature, such as Shakespeare and the Bible. But it is his science fiction works, from his vision of a Foundation to Robots imbued with Three Laws, that guarantee him a place in the hearts of fans of the genre, and a fame that spreads well beyond its boundaries.
This book was something of a departure for him, not being related to any of his other SF works, but still shows his sure hand at plotting and his deft melding of real science with a literally out-of-this-world idea. The story is told in three completely different segments, related only by the commonality of the scientific idea that drives this book, the Electron Pump, a device that can, apparently, deliver infinite free energy by trading material with a universe that operates on slightly different physical laws than our own.
The first segment is a beautiful glimpse into the sometimes not-so-nice world of the academic researcher, into who gets credit (not necessarily the deserving one) for an idea, how animosities begin and are nurtured, about the crassness of public policy being determined by those who do not and cannot understand the basics of the science that delivers the technological goodies.
The second segment is the part that makes this book deserving of its Hugo Award. Shifting from our universe to the para-universe that initiated the transfer that began the Electron Pump, Asimov invents a truly alien race that is at once believable and violently different from our own. Here we meet Odeen, Tritt, and Dua, who each form one part of tri-sexed whole. Each of these beings becomes a real person, from Tritt, the stolid, stubborn parent, Odeen as the absent minded thinker, and most especially Dua as the feeling, capricious, different one. Part of what makes this section so seductive is that Asimov has not just stated that this was tri-sexed species, but shows just how such an arrangement could work, and then throws in something I don't think I saw elsewhere till some of Ursala K. LeGuin's stories - just what constitutes the no-no's, the 'dirty' aspects of their sex lives. And these aspects, when viewed in terms of the whole life cycle of this species, make sense! A truly remarkable achievement, and I wish he had written more about this remarkable universe and its inhabitants.
The third section returns to our universe, and deals with how free investigation into reality guided by leaps of intuition can overcome even two separate hide-bound organizations, and naturally leads to the resolution of the problems introduced in the earlier sections. This section is not quite as strong as the other two, but does definitely develop one of Asimov's points: the characteristics of the universe we live in are determined by several seemingly random constants, from the strength of quark-quark interactions to the speed of light, and changing any of them would result in very radically different universes.
A strong novel, with some excellent characterization within each section, and based on a solid bedrock of real science. This is possibly the best stand-alone fiction work that he wrote, and should be placed on your shelves right next the Foundation and Robot series.
--- Reviewed by Patrick Shepherd (hyperpat)