The End of Eternity
So it turns out that in the more than seven years now that I've kept this booklog, I had not read any Asimov novel at all. Which is somewhat strange, as it was for a large part due to discovering Asimov in my local library's youth section that I became a science fiction fan. I, Robot for example may very well have been the first proper science fiction book I ever read. For a long time Asimov was in fact the gold standard against which I measured every new science fiction writer I came across. If they weren't at least half as entertaining or interesting I wouldn't bother with them. Of his many novels and stories it was this, The End of Eternity that was my favourite, one of the first science fiction books I bought for myself and the first to introduce me to the idea of time travel as more than an excuse to visit scenic parts of the past. Rereading it, the question was whether it would be as good as I remembered it to be. So many novels first read as a child disappoint when you reread them; fortunately this didn't. In fact, it read almost exactly as I expected it to be.The central idea in The End of Eternity is the existence of Eternity, an organisation that monitors and safeguards all of humanity's history from the first invention of the secret of time travel. Most people outside of Eternity think the organisation only exists to facilitate trade between various centuries and perhaps in some vague way protect them from the unspecified dangers of time travel. What they don't realise is that Eternity in fact exists outside of time, from which realm it can not just study and monitor time, but alter reality to make sure that humanity is kept on an ever increasing path to perfection. A whole organisation of Computers, the people who calculate these reality changes, Technicians, who execute them and various other specialists all work together to this goal, ov er a span of time that is literally millions of years long. Power is provided by tapping into Nova Sol, the Sun as it goes nova at the end of its lifecycle. An incredibly neat idea, not quite original to Asimov, but as I said the first time I encountered it was here.
The plot revolves around Andrew Harlan, a Technician, one of the people who make the actual reality changes, and therefore somewhat despised by the rest of Eternity, who all offload their own guilt in creating Reality Changes, which can change the history of billions of people over hundreds of years and make or unmake horrible wars and awe inspiring eras of peace and cultural achievement in one stroke, on the Technicians as the people who "really" create those changes. He's therefore, even though he's working directly for Computer Twissell who is one of the most respected Computers of his day, somewhat of a loner. His hobby of collecting primitive, pre-Eternity artifacts doesn't help either. Totally dedicated to Eternity he's therefore shocked to his core when on assignment to the 482nd century, the assistant Computer in charge there has imported a Timer woman, no doubt for nefarious sexual gratification.
Of course Andrew falls for this woman, Noÿs Lambent, especially after he has to spent a week together with her in real time, to Observe the society she lives in prior to a Reality Change. At the same time Andrew is also involved in a secret project together with Twissel, to teach everything he knows about pre-Eternity history to a very odd newcomer to Eternity, Brinsley Sheridan Cooper, who bears an odd resemblance to the one known picture of the discoverer of Eternity. This resemblence may not be coincidental, as Andrew realises while he tries to find a way to safeguard his love from the impending Reality Change. He starts by securing her in one of the Hidden Centuries, the time between the 70,000 and 150,000th centuries, which the Eternals for some reason cannot enter.
It will probably come as no great surprise that the Hidden Centuries, Andrew's attempts to keep Noÿs alive past the Reality Change and the somewhat mysterious origins of Eternity all hang together. In the end Andrew has to make the choice between Eternity and Infinity, between a humanity that is kept perfect and largely unchanging all through the future but never spreads to the stars and one that does change, cannot be kept safe, but does win the stars. Guess which option he choses.
It was interesting rereading The End of Eternity, because in doing so I noticed something I hadn't when I first read this book, simply because I wasn't wellread enough in science fiction. What I noticed was how Campbellian this novel was in its assumptions. The first assumption, which Asimov pounds in with the subtlety of a sledgehammer, is the idea that there's something special about space travel, that humanity seems destinied to attempt to conquer it. The second related idea is that if humanity doesn't do it, it will stagnate and ultimately die out. Finally there's something that's more original to Asimov himself, which is the idea that you can't just change history, but that you can do this by changing one little thing (one example being moving a container from the shelf it should be on to another) and confidentially predict what the outcome will be (an end to space travel as well as a nasty drug addiction some centuries hence). That's taking the idea of history as a sort of Newtonian process even further than Asimov did with his invention of psychohistory in the Foundation series.
The confidence with which space travel is seen as the ultimate destiny of humanity is strange to read these days, almost forty years after we've seen both the first and the last man on the moon. It comes from a time when science fiction still had a shared future, before it grew too big. In a way it's sad that this sense of destiny has been abandonded, but on the other hand I'm glad modern science fiction has moved away from such faux-certainty.
The question now remains is whether The End of Eternity is still worth reading if you're not doing this as an exercise in nostalgia. Personally, I would say yes, especially for people who have not yet been exposed to the concepts introduced here. It's a fun, quick read, not great literature by far, but an important book in the development of science fiction.
Webpage created 05-01-2008, last updated 20-01-2008.