Time travel is an idea that has been examined by science fiction writers for almost as long as the genre has existed. Whether it’s being used to provide a shocking glimpse into the far future of humanity (as in H.G. Wells’ classic The Time Machine), as a convenient device to construct a non-linear narrative (as in Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five), or as a clever mechanism for revenge and redemption (as in Heinlein’s The Door Into Summer), the peculiar scientific, philosophical, and practical questions that time travel raises have captivated millions of readers over the years – this one included. But for all of the time travel yarns I’ve read in my life, I can’t remember one as thrilling and unpredictable as Isaac Asimov’s The End of Eternity. In general, I’ve always considered Asimov to be an interesting, thought-provoking, and imminently readable author. But nothing quite prepared me for how much I would enjoyed his unique take on time travel. After powering through the book in two days, my only complaint is that it wasn’t longer.
The End of Eternity Summary: The novel is set primarily in a mysterious netherworld known as Eternity, a realm that exists outside of time and provides the means in which to travel to almost any century imaginable. Eternity is used by a small group of humans (known as Eternals) who have been plucked out of various time periods and tasked with monitoring the course of human history and making changes to reality in order to prevent any major events that might threaten humanity. Using a complex organization of specialists, including Observers (whose job it is to provide detailed notes on the current situation in each century prior to a change), Computers (who are able to calculate the effects of those changes on future societies and individuals), and Technicians (who are in charge of actually performing the “Strategic Minimum Actions” necessary to bring about a reality change), the Eternals noble goal is to perform changes to the temporal world that will minimize human suffering in the long run. While these changes can be as minor as leaving a door open where before it was closed (as illustrated by the theory of The Butterfly Effect), the eventual effects of those changes can often be quite drastic (erasing innocent people from existence altogether).
While the idea of silent observers altering the course of history is a fascinating idea (one that one my favorite TV shows Fringe seems to have borrowed), what’s even more fascinating is Asimov’s description of the different centuries that the Eternals have access to and the difficulties that arise from living in many different eras. By traveling “upwhen” and “downwhen,” in time, the Eternals can travel to almost any century they want through the use of a temporal elevator known as a kettle (which, in a brilliant bit of hard science, is supposedly powered by the almost inexhaustible power of Nova Sol, our exploding sun, hundreds of thousands of centuries in the future).
The only eras they can’t go to are the Primitive era before Eternity was created (pre-24th century) and the “Hidden Centuries” (above the 100,000th) that are blocked by some unidentified force. Some centuries look much like our own. Others are “Energy-Centered” and bear no relation to our own. But no matter how far they travel (one character is from the 30,000th century), they notice that man is still basically the same throughout the centuries. It’s as if human evolution stopped after Eternity came into being. Another thing they notice is that, while many centuries have developed space travel, all of them have eventually given it up after finding the universe a crowded, hostile place.
The story’s protagonist is Andrew Harlan, a technician who becomes involved with a non-Eternal woman (also known as a Timer) named Noÿs Lambent. After finding out that a change in her reality will end up causing her to have never existed, Harlan attempts to protect her by hiding her away in one of the furthest centuries of Eternity while he tries to make his case to save her. In the process of trying to save Noÿs, Harlan begins to realize that he is actually part of a much larger and more complicated plot that has to do with the very existence of Eternity and the Eternals efforts to preserve it.
The End of Eternity Review: What really sets this book apart in my mind is the fact that it kept me guessing up until the very last page. There are so many tantalizing questions that it’s hard to keep track of them all. Will Harlan be able to save Noÿs and live happily ever after? Who is Noÿs anyways? Who is the real creator of Eternity? What role is Eternity playing in stunting the evolution of humanity? What does that have to do with space travel? Who or what is keeping the Eternals from reaching the “Hidden Centuries”? While Asimov’s deft explanation of the various paradoxes that arise is fascinating and masterful, his skills at misdirection and subtle foreshadowing are what make this book so great and lead to such a satisfying conclusion. Maybe one day I’ll be able to travel back in time to before I read this book so I can read it all over again.
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