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Worlds Without End Blog

GMRC Review: The End of Eternity by Isaac Asimov Posted at 8:30 AM by Scott Lazerus

Scott Laz

WWEnd Grand Master Reading ChallengeScott Lazerus came to Worlds Without End looking for a good list of books. He found David Pringle’s Best 100 Science Fiction Novels to his liking and is currently working his way through the list. He has posted a bunch of reviews for WWEnd including several for the GMRC. Be sure to check out Scott’s excellent blog series Forays into Fantasy too!

The End of Eternity

When I started reading science fiction, Heinlein, Asimov, and Clarke were the “big three” SF writers—already thought of as the authors of classics while they were still alive and writing. Of the three, Asimov was the favorite of my youth. I appreciated his rigorous logic, humanism, and devotion to the idea that human rationality and science would continue to move us forward into a challenging but ultimately triumphant future. Having not read his work for decades, I looked forward to reacquainting myself with Asimov, but with some trepidation, since it seems that the “Good Doctor” has lost some of his critical luster over the years, and it’s true that sometimes the favorites of adolescence are best left to remain as pleasant memories. David Pringle included The End of Eternity (1955) in his 100 Best, but only grudgingly: “He is one of the best-known sf writers in the world, so I felt I had to include something by Isaac Asimov, though I confess I have little enthusiasm for his work.” His essay on the novel certainly reflects that lack of enthusiasm.

Returning to the novel, the source of the difficulty with Asimov quickly became clear. Asimov, possibly more than any other author, embodies a common dichotomy in Golden Age science fiction: the focus is on ideas and plot, while characterization and prose style often do not hold up to the standards that modern genre readers expect. Asimov was open about the fact that his prose was purely functional and transparent—its job was to present the story without in itself being noticeable. For young readers, this may be especially appealing, but the success of the stories rides on the mind-blowing concepts and/or engaging plots on which Asimov’s fictions succeeds or fails. Readers looking for complex characterization or vivid descriptive writing will have to look elsewhere. But for anyone tolerant of such failings, or willing to overlook them in the interest of a good story, The End of Eternity still holds up as one of the great time travel novels, a nice blend of science fiction and mystery (a strength of Asimov’s), and a fine example of the author’s humanistic themes.

Andrew Harlan is technician for the Eternals—a self-selected elite group formed when time travel became possible in the 27th century. The Eternals are the guardians of Eternity, a set of outposts spanning every century after the 27th, each separated from the timestream by a Temporal Field, and between which the Eternals travel in a sort of subway system through a time tunnel powered by the energy drawn from the sun’s nova billions of years in the future. Each Eternal lives a normal lifespan (“physiotime”), but may live in outposts of Eternity spanning millions of years of human history. Individuals with the proper aptitudes are recruited from throughout history, and once having agreed to join the Eternals, they must renounce their home century and move through time as assigned. Observers collect details on historical periods of interest, Sociologists profile social developments, Life-Plotters analyze the paths of individual lives through different possible realities, and Computers (with the help of “Computaplex” machines) synthesize all of this information in order to decide on whether or not to interfere with history in order to prevent catastrophic developments. They are futuristic utilitarians, making calculations designed to determine how to maximize social welfare with the least amount of interference, though the Changes that are implemented ultimately do change reality subsequent to the time they are made, wiping out entire realities and replacing them with others carefully calculated to be superior. It is Technicians like Harlan whose job it is to leave Eternity and enter Reality in order to make these Changes, requiring extreme attention to detail and steely nerves, given the fact that the smallest Change can potentially alter Reality for centuries forward.

Even allowing for Asimov’s lack of facility for colorful descriptions, Eternity is a drab environment wherein the Eternals maintain a monastic existence. For reasons even they don’t seem to be clear on, women generally do no have the aptitudes deemed crucial to deal with the psychological rigors of time travel, and permanent relationships are not allowed, since each individual Eternal cannot count on staying in any particular century long enough to foster such relationships. As Harlan puts it, “If there was a flaw in Eternity, it involved women. He had known the flaw for what it was from almost his first entrance into Eternity, but he felt it personally only that day had first met Noys. From that moment it had been an easy path to this one, in which he stood false to his oath an an Eternal and to everything in which he believed.” This observation comes at the beginning of the novel, and Harlan’s break with his own beliefs plays out through the remainder of the story.

Noys is from the 482nd Century, a hedonistic time to which Harlan is assigned in order to institute a Change in the timeline. Having fallen in love with Noys, his realization that the timeline that will be created as a result of his intervention will not include her precipitates his crime against Eternity and his ultimate rebellion against its principles, as he decides to take her forward to the 111,394th Century (!) in order to keep her safe from the Change. Throughout time, people are aware of the Eternals, but believe they merely facilitate trade between the Centuries, not realizing that at any moment entire timelines could be wiped out by the Eternals’ decisions. When Noys learns the truth and questions the right of the Eternals to make such decisions, Harlan replies that “‘It’s done for humanity’s good…’ Of course, she couldn’t really understand that. He felt sorry for the Time-bound thinking of a Timer.” For much of the novel, the reader remains sympathetic to the Eternals and their methods. It is implied that they have prevented wars and nuclear holocaust through their actions, but Noys’ reaction, and the fact that the laws of the Eternals make him a criminal for wanting to save Noys’ life, cause Harlan to begin questioning the Eternals’ philosophy.

Asimov was also a mystery writer, and he masterfully drops clues in regard to his actual view of the Eternals early on in the novel—details which seem tossed off at the time, such as that humanity never developed space flight throughout the thousands of Centuries in which the Eternals have been active. For anyone who has read Asimov’s other works, this detail strikes an odd chord but may soon be forgotten. It turns out to be highly significant, however, as it becomes clear late in the novel that the Eeternals’ paternalism, while protecting humanity from its destructive “mistakes,” has also stifled risk-taking and the striving of the species for the stars.

Grand Master Isaac AsimovIn the novel’s early chapters, I found the plot and the details of the workings of Eternity interesting, but I was surprised that the novel didn’t seem much like the Asimov I remembered and was attracted to years ago—the writer who convinced his fans that human destiny lay in the stars, and that whatever hardships and obstacles lay in that path could be overcome with rationality and ingenuity. The Foundation Trilogy is the ultimate statement of this idea, while a personal favorite version of it can be found in the novella “The Martian Way.” In that story, when petty politics on Earth threaten the Martian colonists’ access to the water they need from Earth to power their spaceships, instead of giving up or playing political games, they devise an ingenious plan to use the last of their fuel to travel to Saturn’s rings and tow a giant chunk of ice back to Mars. Many of Asimov’s stories involve this sort of problem-solving, as characters find ingenious solutions to seemingly intractable problems. By removing the obstacles to human happiness, the Eternals have created a safe but ultimately drab existence for humanity—much like their own in the gray corridors of Eternity.

In the second half of the novel, plot twists and unexpected revelations abound, characters are not what they seem, and neither is Eternity, as Asimov’s real agenda is revealed, and the author I remembered makes a triumphant return. Some will complain that Harlan’s actions leading up to this conclusion are sometimes inexplicable—he certainly acts impulsively for someone who is originally presented as being extremely intelligent and rational. We could put this down to his lack of experience with emotional motivation—once those hormones kick in, he goes over the deep end. Still, these readers’ complaints are valid, and Harlan is often a pretty annoying and even unlikeable protagonist. But for Asimov aficionados, such criticisms miss the point, as the world view Asimov promotes, which seems to be questioned early in the novel, becomes all the more prominent once it returns, and those early chapters are seen in a new light. The End of Eternity is not the end of time, but it may be, as Asimov puts it in one of his best-known final lines, “the beginning of Infinity.”

Despite some flat writing and the occasional cringe-inducing line, despite some eye-rolling dialogue and character behaviors, I still seem to be a sucker for Asimov’s unbending humanism and his hopes for human society, at least when he is at his best. It’s one of the influences that led me down the path to becoming a social scientist. Hopefully it’s not just nostalgia, but while the weaknesses are more distracting to the experienced reader than to the young science fiction fan, and Asimov’s vision of the future seems increasingly unlikely, his vision for humanity can still inspire.

1 Comment

hihik   |   16 Dec 2012 @ 19:22

THE time travel story. simply brilliant.

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