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The End of Eternity
Isaac Asimov
Victor Gollancz SF Collectors' Edition, 189 pages

The End of Eternity
Isaac Asimov
Isaac Asimov was born in 1920 in the town of Petrovichi, Russia. When his family came to the US in 1923, they moved to Brooklyn, NY, eventually settling nearby one of the several candy stores bought by his father. In 1942, he took a wartime job at the Philadelphia Naval Yard and moved back to New York in 1945 where he was inducted into the army.

He attended the Brooklyn campus of Seth Low Junior College and then Columbia University. He graduated with a B.S. in Chemistry in 1939. He got into the master's program in chemistry at Columbia on probation. After a year the probation was lifted, and he earned his M.A. in Chemistry in 1941. He continued on at Columbia in a Ph.D. program where he earned his Ph.D. in Biochemistry in May 1948 (with time out for war service).

He worked as a junior chemist at the Philadelphia Navy Yard from May 1942 to October 1945, together with fellow science fiction authors Robert A. Heinlein and L. Sprague de Camp. In 1948 he obtained a post-doctoral position at Columbia and, in 1949, he took a job as instructor of biochemistry at the Boston University School of Medicine, and was promoted to assistant professor in 1951. He was promoted to associate professor, which provided him with tenure, in 1955. He gave up his teaching duties and salary at the School of Medicine in 1958 , but retained his title, so that on July 1, 1958, he became a full-time writer. In 1979, the school promoted him to the rank of full professor. Asimov died on April 6, 1992 of heart and kidney failure.

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Past Feature Reviews
A review by Rich Horton

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I've long been of the slightly heterodox (though far from rare) opinion that The End of Eternity is Isaac Asimov's best novel. It benefits partly from being unconnected to his various series (though there are hints, both within this book and in some of the later books, that there could be a tenuous connection). In addition, Asimov is interested in a significant, and resonant, theme, in a way the central theme of 50s SF: the human desire for exploration, and the concomitant link between risk-taking and expansion of the human spirit. This still works now, nearly at the turn of the millennium, though inevitably the theme needs to be viewed with a touch of irony. Finally, the story is cleverly constructed, and really quite well-written in spots, within the constraints of Asimov's goals and style.

There are weaknesses, to be sure. The central love story is awkwardly handled, and the treatment of women in general is creaky, while the characterization of heroine Noÿs Lambent in particular is uneven. And as with almost any time travel story, the clever structure of the plot tends to wobble on close examination: but that is a fault endemic to the form, and, I think, excusable here. I was a bit concerned about rereading this book now, not having read it in 20 years, though I read it multiple times as a teen. Would it hold up? With the one caveat that I couldn't quite buy his portrayal of women and romance (which I think I did pretty much accept as a callow teen), I think the book holds up fine.

The End of Eternity concerns Andrew Harlan, a Technician for the organization called Eternity. As a Technician, Harlan is an expert at determining and executing the Minimum Necessary Change in a timeline to attain a desired Change in history. For the Eternals, men who live "outside Time," monitor human history from the 27th century to about the 70,000th century, trying to maintain a stable society, with reasonable prosperity. They allow some trade between centuries, but for the most part they work at eliminating worrisome trends: excessively unusual social mores, dangerous technology such as atomic weapons, and, to be sure, excessive curiosity about the nature of Eternity.

As the book opens Harlan is shown committing a crime: in exchange for concealing a minor error by a functionary of one of the Eternity bases, he arranges to have the Life Plot of a certain woman tracked through a change. For, you see, when Reality Changes, everybody changes with it. And a woman you loved might suddenly be married, or have suffered an accident, or be altered in personality.

Flashbacks then show Harlan's history: his recruitment from a somewhat conservative century, his early career as an Eternal, his interest in Primitive history (from before the invention of time travel, thus before Eternity can manipulate history). Finally he encounters the alluring Noÿs Lambent, a woman of a sexually loose century, and the stiff, inexperienced Harlan falls in love, and before long is ready to risk the very existence of Eternity to keep his woman.

Asimov resolves his story, as I've said, fairly cleverly, in the process giving us a look at the creation of Eternity, and at the Hidden Centuries so far in the future that the Eternals can't penetrate, or aren't allowed to penetrate. He makes use of time paradoxes worthy of Charles Harness, but Asimov's presentation is so deadpan and rationalistic that he almost makes them believable. And in the end, he asks whether stability and general happiness is the most worthwhile goal. His answer is the expected answer for a Campbell-nurtured writer of the 50s, but it's still the answer I'd give, with modifications. (After all, Asimov's ideal vision, as presented in this book and elaborated in his Foundation/Empire books, is of a human-dominated galaxy. In essence, he suggests, we need to get to the stars before They -- the aliens -- do. Surely it's better that we get to the stars along with Them?)

Upon rereading The End of Eternity I'd still call it Asimov's best novel. If his picture of an all-male Eternity (admittedly given at least nominal justification in the book) seems risible from a contemporary perspective, so does much 50s SF fail in treatment of women. So too his sex scenes and love scenes are awkward (and the book does have a sex scene, albeit a very discreet one, despite Asimov's habit of joking that he didn't write about sex until he wrote about alien sex in The Gods Themselves): but 50s SF writers were rarely allowed much practice in that area. The ideas presented in the book are still compelling: the meta-society of Eternity is nicely worked out, with many cute details, and the overarching theme is well-argued, and still merits thought. And Asimov's prose, so often denigrated, is here, as ever, well-wielded in service of his goals. It's not beautiful, but it's well-constructed, and the occasional telling line (as a character's soft sentence about a spaceport wiped out in a Change: "It had been very beautiful") really works. This is the kind of book that made me an SF fan, and it's still worth reading.

Copyright © 2000 Rich Horton

Rich Horton is an eclectic reader in and out of the SF and fantasy genres. He's been reading SF since before the Golden Age (that is, since before he was 13). Born in Naperville, IL, he lives and works (as a Software Engineer for the proverbial Major Aerospace Company) in St. Louis area and is a regular contributor to Tangent. Stop by his website at http://www.sff.net/people/richard.horton.


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