Saturday, April 26, 2014

Review of The End of Eternity by Isaac Asimov

H.G. Wells The Time Machine is the landmark time travel novel.  At its most fundamental an adventure imbued with social commentary, Wells did not play with any paradoxes that might result from such an invention, e.g. killing your grandfather to see whether you are erased from existence, or meeting yourself in the past or future to see what happens.  Fast-forward half a century to Isaac Asimov and his logically minded brain.  Grasping a potential of the concept, he set about writing a novel that would not only highlight certain other paradoxes, but tell an adventurous story of his own—one that zigged and zagged through non-temporal space to the tune of human evolution. 

The End of Eternity (1955) is not set in any time or place we are familiar with.  Located outside the four dimensions in a place called Eternity, mankind has discovered the ability to surpass time, and set up an organization and infrastructure to govern and balance social and technological evolution for the safety of all.  Altruistic guardians of time, they travel between the centuries in a device called the kettle.  Able to move upwhen and downwhen to any point, they engage in trade, tweak events to prevent mass loss of life, and generally ensure that the human race survives through the millennia.  But peculiarly enough, the kettle has no access between the 70,000 th and 150,000 th centuries, and what lies beyond nobody knows.

Enter Andrew Harlan, a bright young man who is drafted in his teens into the ranks of Eternals—the men who work outside of time and watch over Eternity.  Educated and tested until deemed ready for the secrets of the temporal void, things take a turn for the unusual when he is asked to educate an older man—an oddity amongst the Eternals.  Doing as he is told and giving the man the required education, things become even stranger when his superiors force him to spend a week’s time with Noÿs Lambent, the only girl he’s ever met inside Eternity.  Initially repulsed, their time together circa the 450 th century opens his mind to new things, and upon his return to Eternity, causes him to make significant changes to his life.  Challenging one norm after another, the fabric of time itself is drawn into Harlan’s plight to get answers to his questions and satisfy his desires.  Eternity is never the same.

Rounding out into a nice story, the pieces, while feeling scattered as the story progresses, gradually draw together to form a complete picture.  But it is in the sub-text, one which does not make itself fully apparent until the last thirty pages, that the heart of The End of Eternity is found.  Working loosely in parallel with the theme of Huxley’s Brave New World, Asimov shows that he is able to embed humanism in what would otherwise be pulpish, Silver Age material.

Equal parts puzzle and adventure story, Asimov does a good job synthesizing the logic of time with a young man’s dreams in a world seemingly against him.  Loop holes, plot holes, logic holes—whatever you want to call them—seem to appear and reappear, but with each twist and turn of story, the reader never has a chance to settle in and allow their doubt to interrupt the story.  One game-changing reveal makes sense out of an idea expressed two chapters ago, only to be subverted by the next idea, and so on.  A wild ride, both literally and figuratively, this book has Asimov at perhaps the peak of his puzzle building powers—all fitting together at the end (at least so it seems).

It does not, however, find Asimov at his peak of characterization or scene description—if he ever did achieve such a place.  Harlan, his rival Finge, and his boss Twissell are for the most part talking heads against a barely effected backdrop.  Noÿs Lambent’s character in particular lacks anything approaching realism.  Like a Betty Crocker doll, she spouts one liners straight from 1950s sitcoms, not to mention Asimov handles the evolution of  her relationship with Harlan with all the subtly of an ‘80s Volvo.   (The following line is delivered in her regard: "You mean the babe? Wow! Isn't she built like a force-field latrine, though?") A concept story, one has to ignore the thinly drawn characters and lack of setting and focus on sentiment for any chance of enjoyment.

In the end, The End of Eternity, given its import, may be Asimov’s greatest work.  Commentary on the evolution of mankind, he expresses its hopes and fears through the simple motif of time travel.  Puzzles and paradoxes part of the story, foregrounded are logical elements that Asimov obviously had fun working out.  Published three years later, Fritz Leiber’s The Big Time shows some influence of Asimov’s story, as does much of the work of Philip K. Dick, particularly those stories of his which feature reality changing men behind the scenes and precogs.  Charles Stross would also write a brilliant novella that plays with the ideas in The End of Eternity called Palimpsest, in fact bettering Asimov's story.

A side note: I copied the following quote from the story while reading, but I could find no place to insert it in the review.  Too good to pass up, I’m left adding it as a footnote.  In order to understand why I can’t throw it away, one must imagine two men having an argument in a spic and span waystation in time, polished metal surfaces gleaming all around, the sterility of Modernism replete.

“Twissell dropped his cigarette and ground it savagely underfoot as though it were the face of a lifelong enemy.”

My question is, after they walk away, what happens to the cigarette?  Does it lay crushed on the polished metal surface, ashes scattering as people pass, the nicotine staining the floor?  Is there a minefield of cigarette butts in the corridor?  There is no mention of cleaner robots, no maids, nothing.  And the smoke?  Are their ventilator shafts?  I do not ask these questions to be pedantic, rather, to have a minor laugh at how deply into existence cigarettes permeated existence in the 1950s.  Smoking in a space station…  No?  Ok, I’m the only one who thinks it’s humorous…

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