9 April 2017

Book Review: The End of Eternity

Title: The End of Eternity
Author: Isaac Asimov
First published in 1955
I read the 2000 re-issue by Voyager

His name is Andrew Harlan. He is an Eternal: a member of a highly exclusive organisation. He is a Technician, and his job is to range through past and future centuries, monitoring and even altering Time's myriad cause-and-effect relationships. The Reality Changes Harlan initiates may affect the lives of up to fifty billion people. Above all, therefore, a Technician must be dispassionate. An emotional make-up is a distinct handicap. 

But when he meets Noÿs, Harlan falls victim to a phenomenon older than Time itself- love. It is then that he realizes that years of self-discipline must be cast aside. He must use the awesome technique of the Eternals to twist Time so that he and Noÿs might survive - together. 

Would you kill Baby Hitler to prevent World War II? It's a classic example of questions that philosophers like to ask to illustrate the issues of morality and ethics (and to sound smart and deep in the process). It's a question to which there is no real answer. Mostly because time travel hasn't been invented and the opportunity to off Hitler in infancy has yet to present itself. But also because we cannot predict what consequences an action like this one would have in the long run. But suppose we could make that predicition?

In The End of Eternity, Asimov gives you this opportunity. He depicts an entire society of men - the Eternals, who have taken it upon themselves to travel back and forth in time and micro-manage reality in order to prevent catastrophes, world wars and other less pleasant aspects of human activity. These Eternals live in a parallel dimension called the Eternity (makes sense), which allows them to manipulate reality without being affected by the changes.

Our protagonist is an Eternal by the name of Andrew Harlan. He's a Technician, which means that his job is to execute the changes. Going back to the Baby Hitler example, it would be Harlan's job to kill him, or at least to provide his parents with a prophylactic.

Being a Technician is a tough job to say the least, because even the tiniest change Harlan will make will inadvertently affect the lives of billions of people. A Technician must leave his emotions out of his job, and be dispassionate, and rational. Harlan does his job well, because he believes that he's doing it for a greater good. Until he meets a woman.

Noÿs is a secretary that has been hired from the real world temporarily. Despite Harlan's best efforts, he falls in love with Noÿs, and she falls in love with him. But there's one problem: a reality change has been scheduled, and Harlan is supposed to make that change. And when he does, Noÿs will be erased from existence.

Going by the blurb, the plot seems simple enough: a man must choose between his duty and his heart. But nothing is that simple when it comes to Isaac Asimov. There are twists and turns; there are spies and political mind games. The final plot twist threw me off at first, but at the same time it's so very Asimov from the foreshadowing down to the payoff, that I can't believe I didn't see it coming a mile away.

There is one detail in this story that I didn't buy at first, especially since the entire plot hinges upon it. And that is the way Harlan falls for Noÿs. It happens so fast that it borders on #instalove, and the whole thing just seemed forced to me. But the more I thought about it, the more it started to make sense to me. When we first meet Harlan, he is in his early thirties, and still a virgin. Hell, he's never even met a real woman before. Eternals live almost completely isolated from the real world and Technicians, due to the nature of their job, are more isolated still. Technicians aren't allowed to let their emotions affect them, making them the most emotionally repressed bastards of the bunch. When you know where Harlan is coming from, it becomes easier to understand how he can fall for a beautiful woman so fast.

This book is short. It's very self-contained and condensed, and it leaves you wanting more. It doesn't overstay its welcome and it's refreshing to see an author who can tell exactly what he wants in just under two hundred pages. What I do miss here is a more developed world-building, and a closer look at the characters' emotional make-up. The Eternity feels very isolated and I don't feel like I can get a good grasp of this world.

But that is precisely the point. The Eternity is an isolated and lonely world, filled with isolated and lonely people. The Eternals don't interact with each other outside of their work. They have been torn away from their families, and are forced to spend most of their lives in an artificial environment. Every man here is a deserted island. We don't get to see the full scope of their emotions, because emotions have been bred out of them. They take to various hobbies and vices (like smoking) to fill the void, and when their feelings do take the upper hand sometimes they don't know how to handle them.

As outsiders, the Eternals may observe the real world, and make predictions and calculations, but they may never be a part of it, and they stay for the large part unaffected by the changes they make. Which begs the question: do the Eternals have the moral right to tamper with history? They claim to be doing it for the good of mankind, but is it really up to them to decide what that "good" is supposed to be? What does it matter to them what the future holds if they won't be a part of it in the first place?

We see the Eternity solely through the eyes of Harlan, and it is through his journey that we become aware of the flaws of his society. In this respect, Harlan reminds me of Guy Montag from Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451. Both Harlan and Montag have been indoctrinated by their respective societies to believe in certain truths, and both must gradually come to a realization that there is something inherently wrong about their philosophies. Not that the Eternals are as bad as an army of book burning firemen, but the parallels are there. Or maybe I'm just trying to find a way to connect the dots between two of my favourite authors, I don't know.

My Rating
Plot: 5 stars
Story: 4 stars
Characters: 3 stars
Language: 4 stars

Total: 4 stars

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