Isaac Asimov, The End of Eternity. Originally published by Doubleday, 1955. The cover illustration is from the 1959 Panther edition.
NOTE: This book is now so old and well-known that I will not take any care to obfuscate the plot for those who haven’t read it.
I’m always on the hunt for bedside reading material: light and fluffy stuff that won’t suffer for being used to put me to sleep, but that won’t just bore me to distraction.
Unlike years ago, my bedside reading ‘stack’ is now just a tablet with an ebook library. That encouraged me to start duplicating old paperback faithfuls with digital counterparts. A recent spurt of acquiring old science fiction as new ebooks included a swag of Asimov. That guy was a factory!
Decades ago, when I began reading science fiction, Isaac Asimov was already a legend in the field; to not read him would have been impossible. Just as impossible as to suggest he wasn’t all that good a writer.
Reading him again decades later, I don’t feel quite as constrained, nor quite as incapable of making that judgement: Asimov could tell a story, but hardly in an elegant or literary style, and with his own proclivity for windbag dialogue between characters instead of action to move the plot along.
The End of Eternity is all that.
But it is also a seminal post-Wells time travel story that surely influenced others, and allowed for the later tranche of this sub-genre I still enjoy today. Particularly the alternate reality/time travel fiction of Keith Laumer and Poul Anderson.
Something else in Asimov’s writing that wasn’t quite as obvious decades ago, but that makes it seem a little juvenile today, is his patronising and unsophisticated approach to women. This became pretty important, since the seductive Noÿs Lambent, from the far future, is both an odd distraction early on, and then the fulcrum on which the story rests.
I have recently spoken to American friends about a persistent pattern in American letters about male authors being unable or unwilling to give dimension and depth to female characters. That is, it doesn’t often extend beyond sexual frisson and the familiar device of interposing women as the simple-minded, Puritan consciences of otherwise sociopathic anti-heroes (killing is heap big bad, sleeping with other women worse, anything against the law not allowed).
On some level I was hoping that Asimov had granted Lambent a more egalitarian status, given her obvious intellectual superiority to the other (male) characters in the story. But of course he hadn’t. She remains a shallow seductress whose reason for dallying with an oaf like Andrew Harlan is never made more clear than as part of a mission to save the future of mankind from the machinations of a bunch of eternally juvenile males.
It is tempting to read into Lambent the rôle women might actually play in humanising men who are incapable of finding that humanity by themselves.
We are shown just how ridiculous men can be without said humanist qualities in the quasi fascist technocracy that is Asimov’s ‘Eternity’ – the cult-like technocracy of men, highly stratified and bureaucratised, who arrogate to themselves the task of altering history to prevent ‘undesirable’ developments in human history.
Undesirable elements include space travel and galactic colonisation, and nuclear power until the 30th century.
Protagonist Andrew Harlan is a middle-level technician whose evident psychology is that of a hysterical little boy. His boss, the chain-smoking Laban Twissell is hardly more sophisticated.
On the whole I think I might have retained more fond memories of this book by not reading it again so long after the first time. It was probably a juvenile fantasy, for me too, that some incredibly sophisticated and sexy woman would somehow be so interested in me – a shallow, uncouth lout of a youth – that she would be willing to throw away her own, far more interesting life to be with me. Fat chance! As unlikely as a super-babe from beyond the 100,000th century stranding herself in the USA of the 1930s with an imbecile like Harlan to ensure a vibrant future from which she just locked herself out.
Yet this re-reading did yield a theme I was not conscious of decades ago: Asimov was warning his readers about the dangers of reductionist determinism. That is, he was telling us that using science as a nominal justification for reducing the complexity of human thought and choices, and then imposing a fixed ideology of what the right thoughts and choices should be, is a dead end for human intellectual and scientific development.
It is a lesson so obvious to me today I wonder whether I gained it from Asimov, and his peers, or whether I came to it over the past couple of decades in butting heads with technocrat imbeciles too ill educated to recognise the dangers inherent in the reductionist determinism that is now part of American technocrat doctrines.
Since Asimov wrote his book, the USA has lost its technological and political leadership, not just in the free world, but also in parts of the world that were never free. In my view the biggest reason is that his lesson was lost on later generations: there is a strong potential for technocracies to become fascist autocracies when non-scientific human qualities become undervalued.
Worse, the advocates for science and technology in the USA see themselves as ranged against baleful Christofascists, who would seek to undermine all science and knowledge to ensure the hegemony of their barbarian, anti-intellectual religionism – an adjunct to the real end game, which is unrestrained kleptocracy.
In creating this binary opposition for themselves, the pro-science Americans have tended towards ideologising science in a way that makes it almost as doctrinaire as the religionism they notionally oppose. And incapable of working as an antidote to that religionism. What’s missing is the humanism that secularises both religion and science.
And what do you know: technology developed in the USA today is all about killing people, limiting lifestyle and consumption choices, surveilling populations, enabling political police to enforce obedience to ideologised and narrowed intellectual and lifestyle ‘options’, and to dismantle rather than protect democratic institutions.
In some ways, it might be argued, the future has not been saved from an ‘Eternity’ of sterility and barbarism presided over by eternally adolescent males.
Asimov could not possibly have imagined Trump’s America. But he surely knew what might happen when scientists closed their minds and collaborated with people just like him to attain ideologised ends.
If I were to recommend literature for the ‘in-betweeners’ aged from 10 to 14, I suspect I would still recommend The End of Eternity, if only because the alternatives are themselves the products of stale imaginations and arid, ideologised ‘appropriatism’.