THE END OF ETERNITY – Isaac Asimov (1955)

The End Of Eternity 2Colonial 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.


12 responses to “THE END OF ETERNITY – Isaac Asimov (1955)

  1. I’m no scientist but I too, with my simplistic turn of mind, have a problem about going back in time. If I was to somehow go back to, say, 1500 AD or 15,000 BP — and I have no idea how much power that would require, perhaps more than is currently available — my constituent atoms would already be existing, albeit scattered around the world or even universe, wouldn’t they?

    What happens to me in that scenario? Would I be scattered to those places in an instant and cease to exist? Would I be scattered but cause unimaginable disruption to the universe? Would nothing happen but would I instead find myself in embedded in a tree, a building, a mountainside (assuming that like a fly trapped in a speeding train I would be in the same space on earth) or, just as likely, snuffed out in deep space because the earth hadn’t reached its present position yet and wouldn’t for centuries to come?

    Much of these questions reiterated themselves when I read Michael Crichton’s fatuous Timeline a few years ago. It started interestingly enough but then went off on a weird historical-action-thriller trip. I don’t mind time-travel so much in stuff like Doctor Who because that sends up the whole timey-wimey concept, but I expected better from Crichton. Looks like Asimov couldn’t resist a bit of paradox either.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Good question about those atoms!

      Asimov tackles the thing about the Earth’s position btw – whereas Wells for instance didn’t in The Time Machine.

      Haven’t read anything by Crichton. Where should I start?

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’ve got The Andromeda Strain to reread, but my mind is filled with images from the film more than the skimread I did years ago; I think you might enjoy this, but give Timeline a miss, certainly!

        Glad Asimov deals with the Earth’s position problem, you’d have to hope he would’ve.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. This is a book I missed by Asimov, and when I started to read your review I was thinking it might be high time I filled this gap, but… what cooled my enthusiasm a little was your mention about the “wooden characters” and “dry prose”, something I encountered – to my dismay – while trying to re-read the once-loved Foundation trilogy. Which set me to wondering if growing up and refining one’s tastes is not a double-edged sword after all…

    Thank you for a very thoughtful review!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yeah, the more I read Asimov (and the more I read in general), the more I think I maybe should not reread the Foundation trilogy again. I will someday, but I’m gonna brace myself. The trilogy is one of the first things I’ve read when I started to read SF, and it had such an impact… Maybe that had more to do with being an unexperienced reader than with the books themselves.


      • I don’t think it’s a matter of being inexperienced, but rather of taste: when I was young I used to read SF without thinking too much about details as writing style and such – as long as I could be carried away toward “strange new worlds”, it was enough. Maybe such innocence was a blessing, who knows? But still I prefer today’s more discerning attitude… 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

        • Yes, but as experience has a strong influence on taste, we’re basically talking about the same thing.

          There’s something to be said for inexperienced innocence, as one is more easily infatuated by a sense of wonder, but with getting older I sometimes feel depth enhances too. I’m not sure that last thing is something real or some psychological coping mechanism 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

  3. Whatever it is, I feel better for having developed it! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

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