The End of Eternity PDF Print E-mail

Isaac Asimov, The End of Eternity (1953)

Reviewed by John Hertz
November 2007

Retrieved from the Internet Archive (originally at Collecting Science Fiction Books; copyright remains with the author). Used by permission.

       Here is Margaux wine gleaming red through the glass, with the flavor you can’t decide whether to call strong or delicate and the breath of violets. Here is Japanese nigirimeshi, seaweed around a triangle of rice holding in its careful blandness a sharp center, perhaps a salted plum.

       Asimov at Noreascon III, the 1989 World Science Fiction Convention in Boston, told us that while he had by then published 400 books, of which only 75 were s-f, he considered himself an s-f author. By his death in 1992 it was 500.

       He is represented in each of the ten categories of a library’s Dewey Decimal System except philosophy. He used to say a good joke could do more to provoke thought than hours of philosophical discussion.

       This book is dedicated to Galaxy editor Horace Gold, who rejecting it as a short story provoked its rewriting as a novel. It has been translated into Russian (1966), Hebrew (1979), Finnish (1987), and Spanish (2004).

Two thousand years ago the great Roman poet Horace said to start a story in the middle of things. Fifty-five thousand years from now Eternity begins, "Andrew Harlan stepped into the kettle." He moves the starting lever. The kettle doesn't move.

Notice the touch of resonance Asimov brings by giving the same word "move" to the kettle and the lever. Doing such things aptly is an element of the writer's art. We'll look at more.

Andrew didn't expect the kettle to move. This is time travel. He was born in the 95th Century and is off to the 2456th, a sizable distance even for a hardened Eternal.

Eternity is outside ordinary time. Men invented it. The men who live there, Eternals, are brought from ordinary time and trained for the task of watching, protecting.

If ordinary time, Reality, appears to be going wrong, Eternals change it. They seek the minimum necessary change for the maximum desired response.

Because an Eternal entered Time and tampered with a vehicle clutch, a young man does not reach a lecture on mechanics. He never takes up solar engineering. A simple invention is delayed ten years, and a war is moved out of Reality.

What if personalities were changed? The new personalities were as human as the old and as deserving of life. A great work of literature was never written in the new Reality, but copies were preserved in the libraries of Eternity, and new creative works came into existence.

The man who got this result, and had these thoughts, is Andrew Harlan. He excels at finding the minimum necessary change.

The night after the vehicle clutch he could hardly sleep, worrying. But he had begun his career.

If there is a flaw in Eternity, Andrew muses later, it involved women. He knew the flaw — or thought he did — almost from his first entrance into Eternity, but he felt it personally only the day he first met Noÿs.

Seven pages after we see this collection of symbols we learn it is the name of a woman.

We were expecting her.

Asimov assumes his readers know or will discover, and since this book note is on the World-Wide Web your software may not even show you, that the two dots over the vowel "y" are a diaeresis mark, signaling a separate sound.

In the interests of avoiding emotional entanglements, an Eternal must not marry. In the interests of avoiding emotional entanglements, an Eternal must not have children. Liaisons exist, as a compromise with human appetites.

Such liaisons are almost always of Eternal men and Timer women.

Women almost never qualify for Eternity. For some reason, taking them from Time into Eternity is ten to a hundred times more likely to distort Reality than is taking men.

When Eternity was published, men — and women — readers might have smugly taken this in stride. Today's women — and men — readers might smugly take offense. Wrong, wrong, all wrong. See instead what the author has made.

Noÿs Lambent as a Timer from the 482nd Century comes to change Andrew's life. She is youthful, physically attractive. Andrew is promptly consumed with desire and, when we meet him, is already deep in an affair of the heart.

His conscience is clouded. His world turns sweet and sour. He is a Technician whose task is to manipulate Reality; he now marches through mist after mist of manipulation. Eternals, trained to be selfless, he sees again and again as self-interested; where they should be pure, he sees they are petty.

Yet far more is in store for him, as he ponders what underlies Reality, what he is, and what is the truth of Noÿs.

We meet the one era in Reality that develops electro-gravitic space-travel. Sociologist Kantor Voy says, "It's an aesthetically pleasing device. It's a pity we must Change away from it." These particular ships are called beautiful, a rare instance of that word in the entire book. And Eternity keeps Changing away from space travel.

The four instances of "beauty" are these ships, Andrew's work, the music of an instrument Noÿs plays, and Noÿs herself.

There is intrigue in this book, unstated plans, detection. There is indeed a scheme, but it is neither the first nor the second which may present itself — I allude to Conan Doyle's story "The Final Problem", Asimov was a Sherlock Holmes fan.

There is the fruit of considerable thought about time travel, which makes this book interesting to students of s-f as a genre.

Similarities come to mind.

Hermann Hesse's Nobel Prize s-f novel The Glass Bead Game (1943) imagines a secular culture of men, in about the year 2400, who for the sake of their profession as a kind of guardians exclude themselves from women. Hesse is alive to consequences of that, and as to thoughts of eternity he lets us glimpse the Roman Catholic Church offstage, whose monasticism, it seems, is of a fundamentally different order.

Asimov's Eternity never mentions religion.

Larry Niven's novel Protector (1973), the later books in his Ringworld series (The Ringworld Engineers [1980] and thereafter), and his time-travel comedy Rainbow Mars (2000) explore problems of protecting people which may arise even with superior intelligence, technology, or perspective.

There is no sign that Eternals have superior intelligence; indeed it is essential to the story that they are of ordinary human nature.

Discussing Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1932) at s-f conventions recently I've observed that, while we may prefer customs between men and women today over those when it was published, we have to recall the shocking effect then of some Brave passages.

In George Orwell's 1984 (1949) the idyll of Winston Smith and Julia — Orwell never tells us her last name — was still a shock.

We may react quite differently from a 1950s audience to the explicit — but not graphic — intimacy between Andrew Harlan and Noÿs Lambent.

The 482nd was not a comfortable Century for him, hedonistic, marriage a personal agreement without binding force. He wishes millions of pleasure-seeking women would transform into pure-hearted mothers. She says only "Wouldn't you like to?" and later "You just ask a girl. It's so easy to be friendly. The girl has to be willing, of course."

Fifty years ago this was titillating. Today it may seem offensively convenient. See instead what the author has made.

Brave New World is foaming, heady, a poem of intoxication. 1984 is a stiff dose of bitters. The Brave women are as false as the men. In 1984 too no one is redeemed.

The End of Eternity is a love story. Our questions about Andrew's love are right. In the end as the mists melt — indeed by reflecting on Noÿs — we recognize what he has been and done. His mistakes are worse, and his character better, than we thought. We are left with a man who learns.

Asimov's spare prose is here at its height. It stands in his language, his focus. Hills of detail are at a stroke given to the imagination. Minds and hearts — and this is a novel of the mind and heart — are painted partly by silence, by the author's silence, by what is set before us and what goes unsaid. The reader, the re-reader, who looks, who notes, is rewarded. Theodore Sturgeon used to say "Science fiction is knowledge fiction." That is true not only of physical knowledge.

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