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Apr 4, 2015

The End of Eternity

1971 - Cover art by Paul Lehr.
This was the edition of The End of Eternity
that I first owned during my SF golden age.
I don't write conventional book reviews, so it is best to view this blog post as my nonreview of Isaac Asimov's time travel novel, The End of Eternity. Below, spoilers abound, so read the novel before reading all of this page.

1956 - Harlan and Noÿs
The beginning of Infinity
I've read many novels and short stories that were written by Asimov, but his one story that I have re-read most often is The End of Eternity. No, I have not read The End of Eternity 100 times, but I might get there before I die.

Many of Asimov's novels are not easy reading and once you know the plot there is not much reward from reading them again. What makes The End of Eternity different? Why do I keep returning to read this novel Time after Time?

Cover art from the 1st edition, 1955
The End of Eternity is an unconventional love story. Asimov, as a writer of plot-driven stories, has often been criticize for not being much concerned about his characters, particularly his female characters, but Noÿs Lambent, the only female character in The End of Eternity, is one of the classic female characters from the Golden Age of science fiction.

SPOILERS
1956 Urania magazine 
Noÿs does not come on stage until 20% of the novel has already been presented. In that first fifth of the story, Asimov provides readers with a plot that reads like a hypertrophied example of male-dominated Golden Age science fiction. Don't worry! Keep reading....a neat switcheroo is coming.

Our protagonist, Harlan, is part of Eternity, a kind of club for men only, a technology-driven system for guiding the course of human civilization into the future.

1984 edition
my current copy
The Eternals, although they exist in an artificial space-time bubble outside of normal Time, can travel through Time and alter Reality, eliminating dangerous technologies and social extremes. The Eternals themselves are each ripped out of the century of their birth, never to return. Raised like cult members, the Eternals become dedicated to the ideal of using time travel to provide Humanity with "the greatest good for the greatest number".

1958 Love and betrayal
When Noÿs walks on stage, with sensual swaying of her hips, Harlan is immediately unhinged. He forgets his job and his Eternal's Oath; all he can "think" is, "a girl such as this! And in Eternity!"

Harlan is smitten, but his complete inexperience with women and his dedication to Eternal ideals causes him to react with anger, lashing out at his boss, Computer Finge. When he learns that he must under-take a mission in Time and reside for a week with Noÿs in her comfortable home in the 482nd century he objects: "there is some mistake".

Only later does Harlan learn that this is no mistake, but rather Harlan is being used to test the rumor that women of the 482nd century have come to believe that by making love to an Eternal they can live forever. Noÿs proceeds to confirm the rumor, apparently the rumor was started by her -all as part of a plot to make use of Harlan as her tool, the tool that she needs to destroy Eternity.

2003 edition
And finally, at the end of the story, we learn that Noÿs is not actually a woman of the 482nd century, but rather, an agent from 7,000,000 years in the future, sent back through Time to make use of Harlan as part of a plot to destroy Eternity and give Humanity a chance to spread among the stars.

Am Ende der Ewigkeit
When Harlan learns that Noÿs is from the far future and that she has used his emotions to manipulate him like a puppet, that she has used his love for her to turn him against Eternity, he plans to murder her. However, Noÿs is able to sweet-talk Harlan and get him to recognize that it is the mere existence of Eternity that condemns Humanity to a slow decline and an ultimate extinction.

La fin de l'éternité
Given the tool of time travel, humans keep making the "safe" choices in history, eliminating the wars and the disasters, but at the same time preventing Humanity from taking the great chances that would lead to ultimate freedom....an endless expansion among the stars.

By the end of Asimov's story, we see how the weaknesses of the male-dominated Eternity made the organization an easy target for Noÿs. Like a house of cards, Noÿs was able to bring down Eternity simply by pulling on one card- Harlan.

21st Century Sci Fi Propaganda
If repeated often enough then does it become true?
Asimov lived in the previous millennium and wrote The End of Eternity in the 1950s when, so we are told, "...the purpose of a woman in 50s science fiction was to make the man look good..." Try applying that claim to The End of Eternity. Other science fiction watchdogs promote the idea that we should climb up on our soap boxes and condemn science fiction stories that do not have at least two female characters. I'm in favor of fiction with plenty of interesting female characters (not to mention hermaphrodites and asexual artificial life forms), but I'm not ashamed to proclaim my complete satisfaction with stories such as The End of Eternity and Assignment Nor'Dyren (by Sydney Van Scyoc), stories that "only" have one female character.

An Ek'col and an Asterothrope
The End?
At the end of Asimov's novel, Eternity has been destroyed. Harlan and Noÿs are in the Primitive, ready to live out their lives in the 20th century. But is that the end?  For decades I was not satisfied to abandon Harlan and Noÿs to their new life in the Primitive. The Foundations of Eternity was intended as a sequel to The End of Eternity. Noÿs is revealed to be an Asterothrope, a new species from the far future, crafted from human genes, but designed to facilitate the colonization of new worlds.

Turnabout is fair play. I later discovered that there was more to the story than could fit into The Foundations of Eternity. Trysta and Ekcolir tells the story of how, once in the Primitive, Noÿs discovers that her mission to change the course of history is not yet complete. Harlan is abducted by aliens and taken to the Moon. Now using her cover name, Trysta, Noÿs is herself targeted by a mysterious secret agent, an Ek'col male from the Galactic Core. Trysta falls in love with Ekcolir (he was designed by Grean to be her soul mate) and begins a collaboration with Grean to chart a new future for Earth, one in which Humanity will spread among the stars.

Related Reading: the man who invented Eternity
 Time Travel and Aliens
More commentary on The End of Eternity 
Time Travel in 1949: 'The Red Queen's Race'.

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