Isaac Asimov’s The End of Eternity
by Don Webb
The author converses with a friendly alter ego about the place of The End of Eternity in Asimov’s works. The conversation is all spoiler.
[Alter E.] Okay, Don W., why do you want to talk about The End of Eternity? For almost fifty years it’s probably been Asimov’s most completely forgotten novel. It’s even been hard to find.
[Don W.] True, it’s only recently been reprinted as a separate title. By chance, I found an early paperback edition; curiosity got the better of me, and I’ve reread it with a couple of questions in mind: Does it deserve being ignored or dismissed for so long? And might it tie in with some of Asimov’s other novels?
Good luck. It has no robots, no Galactic Empire, and no Foundations. And the consensus is that its style is an anomaly. You, yourself, have called it a potboiler.
Yes, I admit I have. I remembered vaguely from years ago that I hadn’t been very impressed with The End of Eternity. As you say, it seemed to have little to do with any of Asimov’s other novels. And the characters are hard to like.
Well, was it as bad as you remembered?
No, actually it was the opposite, and I’ve changed my mind about it. Anyway, when people say that something is “bad,” they’re just saying they wanted something else. Sometimes they know what it is, sometimes they don’t; sometimes they can make a case for it, sometimes they can’t. There are plenty of things we all might have done differently if we’d written Asimov’s stories. But who cares? The important thing is how we relate to something we all share, namely the novel itself.
Give us an example or two, at least, of what’s bad or not. It would be nice to know what you’re talking about...
Some readers whose taste is more refined than mine turn up their collective nose at the plot of The End of Eternity. But I have yet to find a serious critique, one that proposes an alternative plot that makes sense in the context of the story and that Asimov himself might have preferred. Mostly, people say they like this or dislike that, which tells me a little something about them but nothing about the book.
On the other hand, I’ve seen readers — also more discerning than I, no doubt — fawn over The Currents of Space. They seldom say why. I consider that novel a disaster: the most routine editing — be it only removing tedious repetition — would have made it a respectable novella. But what’s the point in calling it “bad”? Publishing an ironic critique of slavery and racism in John W. Campbell’s Astounding Science Fiction, of all places, was a virtue that swept away all faults. Anyway, The End of Eternity is very tightly written in comparison.
Right, we must prove our points. And yet The End of Eternity seems to have been roundly rejected...
Not by Asimov. Horace Gold, editor of Galaxy, wanted massive revisions, but Asimov resisted. Doubleday wanted Asimov’s name and published the book. Now, I’m not interested in marketing, but that bit of publishing history tells me that Asimov preferred his story the way it was and that he saw something in it that others did not.
Okay, what is the book about?
The Eternals are a group — almost exclusively men — who live in “Eternity,” which is literally outside of “Time,” where everybody else lives. They move parallel to Time in “kettles,” which are analogous to elevators in a skyscraper. The Eternals can step out into Time to influence the course of history. They operate in all human centuries from the invention of time travel in the 27th down to the far future, about the 100,000th century. At that point, an unknown agency mysteriously blocks their access to Time.
The Eternals are almost superstitiously incurious about this temporal blockade and refer to the time beyond it as the “Hidden Centuries.” They are content to busy themselves with adjusting the history accessible to them. They do so by making “Minimum Necessary Changes,” which they calculate with painstaking research.
Andrew Harlan, recruited into the Eternals from the 95th century, is a brilliant Technician, one who would surely be bound for a position on the Allwhen Council, at the top of the Eternals’ hierarchy. But he is a very conflicted man: he has grave doubts about the Eternals’ purpose, intensely dislikes and distrusts his colleagues, and isn’t very happy with himself, either.
That certainly doesn’t sound like any other character of Asimov’s that I can recall, even the Mule. In Foundation and Empire, the Mule is lonely, and he overcompensates for his physical infirmities; but Asimov just tells us that, he doesn’t really show it. The Mule doesn’t seem nearly as messed up as Harlan.
Good point. And, of course, Bayta Darrell is the Mule’s undoing, you’ll recall. She is kind to the Mule — although she doesn’t know for a long time that’s who he is — and he returns her good will by not tampering with her mind. That leads to her preventing him from discovering the Second Foundation.
And the connection is...?
As The End of Eternity begins, Harlan is head over heels in love with Noÿs Lambent, a beauteous and sensual young... novitiate, for lack of a better term. She’s very reassuring and insightful. She seems to find Harlan attractive and thinks that’s quite natural. In contrast, Harlan struggles with guilt and distrust at having the same feelings for her. Harlan’s problem is that Eternals are strictly forbidden to marry or have children, although they are permitted to have “temporary liaisons.”
Aha, cherchez la femme ! But aren’t all of Asimov’s female characters rather one-dimensional? If they’re young, they’re sensual; although they tend to be a little prim for my taste, like Pola Shekt in Pebble in the Sky. If they’re a bit older, they’re nurturing mother figures, like Valona, in The Currents of Space. Middle-aged, they tend to be powerful women, like Harla Branno, in Foundation’s Edge. Not to mention la terrible Susan Calvin. One could go on and on...
All very true. Asimov’s women predictably play the role of a madonna, a wise crone or a... shall we say... girl who knows how to lead a bashful boy in a dance. And sometimes all those roles at once! In short, Asimov’s female characters are typically sensual, nurturing, intelligent and, ultimately, powerful.
One exception I can think of: Jessie Bailey, in The Caves of Steel. Her husband, Elijah Bailey, tells how he disillusioned her about her name, Jezebel. The story seems true to life, and we sympathize with her feelings of disappointment. That makes her quite human. But how does all this tie in with Noÿs Lambent?
She’s young and introduces Harlan to the joys of sex. She’s also mysterious: the Eternals’ calculations show that she is unaccountably out of place in the 482nd century. At the end, we learn she is quite powerful, too: she’s an undercover agent from the Hidden Centuries who’s been sent to put a stop to the Eternals’ meddling with history. She’s not only intelligent, she’s also brave: in the painfully melodramatic ending, she argues Harlan into dropping his blaster and melting into her arms, thereby putting an end to Eternity. I just wish she weren’t so incredibly perfect, but maybe there’s a reason for it. Anyway, she does have a saving grace: she needs Harlan as much as he needs her, and in more ways than one.
All in all, it all sounds like good, clean fun. How did Harlan fall in love with Noÿs?
What author can do more than describe such a thing? From the outset, Harlan is depicted as ripe for the plucking. The main objection I’ve seen to the plot is that Asimov begins with the love affair in full flight. Well, there’s a reason for it: the center of the novel is Harlan’s conflict with the Eternals. Noÿs supplies his motive for playing fast and loose with the Eternals’ rules in order to make his “liaison” with her more than “temporary.” We find out later how their romance started.
What’s wrong with that?
Nothing, as far as I can see. Beginning in medias res is a plot device that Asimov almost never uses anywhere else, and yet it works very economically in terms of characterization and in getting The End of Eternity off to a fast start. If readers want a linear, soap-opera style romance, they can curl up with The Stars, Like Dust.
And that’s pretty thin gruel... With Asimov, romance seems like a concession to the readers and something of an embarrassment.
Harlan and Noÿs are a cut above average, but I have to admit they are cast in Asimov’s typical mold. Noÿs would really come to life if we could know more how she feels.
Okay, we’ve got an unusual plot, a predictable romance, a sweet, young, mysterious, powerful woman, and an unusually vulnerable main character in Andrew Harlan. What’s the writing like?
If it hadn’t been for the romance, I would have begun to wonder how much of this novel Asimov actually wrote. The story has a lot of action and an exceptional amount of intrigue, but it all develops in Andrew Harlan’s head. And he is a very angry young man, for all the reasons I’ve mentioned: he’s frantic at the prospect of being separated from Noÿs, he despises the Eternals personally, and he increasingly doubts the validity of his vocation.
This is an anomaly, all right. Asimov concentrates on Harlan’s feelings, and Harlan has a lot of issues to resolve. I can see why readers might be surprised. As a rule, Asimov obviously likes his characters. I’d even say he likes all of them. But not in this case. It sounds like he was angry, himself...
I don’t know what his state of mind was at the time, but I think The End of Eternity is more emotionally loaded than any other novel of Asimov’s, possibly because it has important philosophical points to make. Among other things, it is the key to the Foundation series.
Copyright © 2004 by Don Webb