Colonial studies have been part of the curriculum for over two decades at literature faculties on universities across the globe. I wonder how many professors and scholars realize lots of science fiction can also be considered as literature that deals with colonialism. There’s the obvious Prime Directive in mainstream culture’s Star Trek. There’s a variant of that in Banks’ Culture novels: how and when to intervene in other – technologically less developed – cultures? There’s Ursula Le Guin. China Miéville explored the theme a bit in Embassytown. And so forth… The fact that lots of SF deals with encountering and engaging with other, alien cultures makes it a perfect genre to explore real world colonial issues.
The End Of Eternity fits into this way of looking at SF as well. It is one of Asimov’s stand-alone novels, and is considered among his best by many. The protagonist is Andrew Harland, one of the few who live in Eternity, a location outside place and time, where “Eternals” enact “Reality Changes”, small, calculated shifts in the course of history made for the benefit of humankind. Though each Change is made for the greater good, there are also always costs.
For those who have read it, 1971’s The Lathe Of Heaven of Le Guin instantly springs to mind. I have written extensively about my view on utilitarianism – an important theme in both books – in Lathe‘s review, so I will not repeat those here. Le Guin is more overtly critical on the matter than Asimov, who doesn’t necessarily fault utilitarianism, but instead faults placid, safe, stale thinking, and pleads for ambition, difference, diversity and risk.
“Whom do you mean by ‘we’? Man would not be a world, but a million worlds, a billion worlds. We would have the infinite in our grasp. Each would have its own stretch of the Centuries, each its own values, a chance to seek happiness after ways of its own in an environment of its own. there are many happinesses, many goods, infinite variety… That is the Basic State of mankind.”
Both books are also about colonialism, and a specific kind at that: colonialism of the future, or better yet, future paternalism. The Eternals claim to know better what should happen in the future, and are willing to sacrifice innocent human lives for that. The same goes for William Haber in The Lathe Of Heaven.
I have one big problem with The End Of Eternity, and that seems to be a given in nearly every time travel story: the paradox. As a kid, I couldn’t get my head around the fact that The Terminator‘s John Connor sent his father back to the past, where he is conceived. I still can’t get my head around it, as it seems impossible – even after reading a fair share of non-fiction books on quantum science, the multiverse and the relativity of time.
The sad thing is that The End Of Eternity starts out so well. No paradoxes. The science is plausible. The scope is broad. There are some interesting concepts, like the fact that there is inertia to change across time. Asimov seemed to have thought things through. I even got a bit excited: could this be a time travel story that actually works?
But near the final third of the book, a paradox does pop up: a paradox similar to the one in The Terminator: the Eternals conceiving themselves. What makes it even sadder is that this paradox is completely unnecessary for the plot. Asimov could have written the same story without it. It’s not a small thing either, as it gets lots of page time. Why oh why?? I can’t imagine Asimov not seeing it himself, nor him not seeing a few easy fixes that would have removed the paradox. Was Asimov joking? Paying ironic homage to the genre of time travel? I have no clue.
Whatever the reason, it doesn’t make the novel better. What could have been a 100% clever book with a message I can put myself behind, turns out to fall in the same trap as so many others: it short-circuits. That doesn’t make it a bad book per se. I quite liked it. It’s obviously still Asimov: wooden characters (but not so wooden as in a few of his other books) and dry prose (but not so dry as in a few of his other books). And although the love part of the plot is idiotic in its childish simplicity, The End Of Eternity is definitely not as pulpy as the few other 1950s SF books I’ve read. I can understand people claiming this to be Asimov’s best stand-alone book. They might very well be right. But as Asimov was all about ideas, that huge, glaring mistake on the idea front is a bit of a blotch in the book’s 253 pages.
It does deserve a thumbs up for its central message: there’s no shame in trying, taking risks and failing, as long as we learn from our mistakes. Fail better: a cliché, yes, but one that bears repeating.