Isaac Asimov’s The End of Eternity, along with being one of the author’s few enduring works, dealt with the paradoxes of time travel and the long term meaning of time to humanity. An openly admitted adaptation, Charles Stross’ 2009 novella Palimpsest spins the idea of Platonic Guardians of humanity’s future into a unique story loaded with imagination, cohering into a mature thought regarding the fundamentals of human existence. Phenomenal.
Palimpsest is the story of Pierce, an agent-to-be in the Stasis. The Stasis governing and guiding mankind’s cycles of evolution by accessing wormholes of time, Pierce is trained to observe, and if necessary, intervene to ensure humanity survives, even if it means decimating thousands or millions of people. Part of a botched mission in which mysterious assailants suddenly appear on the Medieval scene with weapons far more capable, Pierce, while convalescing, is introduced to Xiri, a student from real-time who has received permission to make his life the subject of her doctoral thesis. His recovery scheduled to take some time, the young man falls in love. But it is when fully recovered that things with the Stasis begin to fall apart. And it all starts with the Library at the End of Time. Not finding what he expected, Pierce’s mission in life takes an unexpected turn.
Simply put, Palimpsest is amongst Stross’ best work, if not the best. His stories so often shooting off on wild tangents after building from engaging premises (see Missile Gap or Glasshouse), in Palimpsest he wholly benefits by working within the framework of a structured idea, i.e. Asimov’s The End of Eternity. This is not to say ‘order is good/correct and chaos is bad/wrong’, rather that the unconstrained imaginings often lead to many interesting ideas, but ideas which do not always collapse into a concept that amounts to anything greater than eccentric genre material. Stross’ rewrite of Asimov’s tale fills the numerous sterile moments of The End ofEternity with glowing description, making the reader aware that Asimov may be Asimov, but Stross’ skills as a writer at a technical and imaginative level are much, much better.
What makes Stross better? The first reason is the sensuality of the descriptions. The End of the Eternity often feeling like a monochrome mouse in a labyrinth, Palimpsest never seems to occupy the same setting twice, the scenes through time all colored in unique terms. The mechanics behind it are described in relevant enough details, but by and large Stross focuses on tactility, not logic, as Asimov tried. The best examples of this are the intermittent slide shows. Each describing the stages of the solar system’s evolution, eons of time (comparable to Stapledon’s Star Maker) are fired off in relation to humanity’s survival. The inclusion of fleshed out details and the lack of continual rationalizing makes Palimpsest more of a story and less of an A to J to E to P and eventually to Z exercise, as was often the case with The End of Eternity, and as a result, far more rich and textured.
The second major reason Palimpsest is better is the denouement. Where Asimov closed the ending, sending Harlan toward a focused compass point, Palimpsest ends along more expansive lines. To the benefit of the story, one line in particular provides the perfect counter-point to The End of Eternity, hinting beautifully (yes, beautiful can describe Stross!) at the entropy described in the vignettes. This ambiguity leaves everything hanging, like the last drop of wine in a bottle.
In the end, Palimpsest is an acknowledged remix of a classic sci-fi story which does nothing but benefit from Stross’ singularity-minded imagination. Human evolution viewed through both creative and sentimental lenses, it is among Stross’ best works. Sensual yet thoughtful, dynamic yet cohesive, I can only hope Stross displays more of his humanist side in such engaging fashion in the future.