|Time Technician Andrew Harlan|
I was amused to recently see The End of Eternity described as a "sci-fi romance" (here). And judged as a romance story ("it’s mostly just a boring romance"). Asimov had a huge ego and he liked to point out the fact that he was a prolific writer who wrote in many genres and published books across almost the the entire range of the Dewey Decimal System. However, if anything, Asimov was an anti-romance writer (sort of like anti-matter!).
|Click image to enlarge.|
|The Caves of Steel|
Asimov is typically described as a writer of science fiction, but for many years during the middle part of his writing career he wrote almost no fiction, instead writing other things including many books and articles that explained scientific and historical subjects to an audience of general readers. Asimov became very interested in mystery stories. Asimov is famous for writing some of his positronic robot stories in a format that involves a fairly conventional "police detective" who investigates crimes.
Asimov's Rules for Reviewers
2) "Reviewers must read with attention so that they avoid errors and unreasonable criticisms."
3) "Reviewers must concentrate on the book and only on the book."
4) "Reviewers must have a wide knowledge of the field."
5) "Reviewers must be competent writers themselves."
6) "Reviewers must not turn reviews into a showcase for the reviewers and their own agendas."
However, reader comments about books can provide interesting data about reader reactions to books.
Data: views of the readers
amazon.com and compare the five star reviews to the critical reviews.
Critical (two star) reviews:
Mr. Amazon Customer: "I still had a lot of trouble buying into the main character in this story. The problem I have with him and the story in general is that emotional situations seem to be taken to extremes going from dry clinical detachment to wildly-in-love, blackmailing, murderous, and suicidal without any sort of in-between."
Genella V. Bakas: "I could not care less about the characters: plain, weird and superficial."
Ms. Amazon Customer: "the writing and characters seem sophomoric"
|3 of Asimov's characters|
Morphie: "The plot is jumbled, the characters undeveloped, the premise is almost incoherent"
George halligan: "Poor plot, insubstantial characters and a lapse into the jargon that amateur sci-fi authors"
Helpful positive reviews:
David Rasquinha: "At the heart of the book is the love story of Andrew Harlan and Noyes Lambent, but this tale is just a framework for Asimov to build on. In the final analysis, Asimov is making the point that just as a child learns to walk by repeated falls, humanity's ultimate characteristic is the Schumpeterian desire and ability to innovate through risks. If we are protected from ever making mistakes, we may avoid tragedies, but the human race itself will vegetate and die. As with many of his earlier works, the dialog can be jarring and characters often one-dimensional. For all that however, The End of Eternity ranks among Asimov's finest"
What do I conclude from these data (above)? First, Asimov was writing way over the head of some 21st century readers. Some people just get confused by The End of Eternity and complain about a poor and jumbled plot. Other readers enjoy the story and describe it as " " and note: " ". If your idea of science fiction comes from watching mindless Hollywood dreck, then you probably can't even understand the time-twisted plot that Asimov presents to you in The End of Eternity.
I like the order in which
Noÿs functions as an M.N.C. -a Minumum Necessary Change. In the technical jargon of Eternity, a M.N.C. is the desired means of changing the flow of Time and initiating a Reality Change. What change does Noÿs cause? Nothing less than the end of Eternity.
"Eternity was too finely balanced an arrangement to endure modification."
Eternity is the time travel "device" that Asimov imagined. Eternity is both a time travel machine and a place that exists outside of the normal flow of Time. Asimov tells the story from the perspective of Andrew Harlan, one of the Eternals, the residents of Eternity who work (using time travel) to guide humanity safely through the centuries.
Harlan was born in the 95th century. We never learn many details about life in the 95th, but apparently Andrew grew up in a society where women were expected to be "true, pure-hearted mothers". For the sake of argument, let's imagine that the society of the 95th century is similar to that of the United States in say, 1895.
more than a little matriarchical"), women are free to lead independent lives and have sexual partners just for pleasure. Children can be produced artificially when women hand their egg cells off to "the ovaria". "In a hundred ways Harlan though the society sick".
What about the meta-society that exists within Eternity itself? The Eternals can observe the ebb and flow of social extremes across millions of years of human history, but the social system within Eternity is highly constrained and rigid. The greatest constraint arises from the fact that for (unexplained) genetic reasons, it is almost impossible to remove women from the flow of Time and place them into Eternity as full-time working Eternals -doing so is too disruptive to the history of Earth. Thus, the Eternals are almost exclusively males. The shortage of females in Eternity makes for some unhappy Eternals, but these lonely men are supposed to be like monks and work hard and ignore the deficiencies and hardships of their own existence. The Eternals view themselves as the Guardians of Humanity!
With a powerful and competent woman like Noÿs on the job, Asimov had no need to insert any other female characters into the story.
"it’s another 'he barely met her, but now he desperately loves her' kind of book."
In The End of Eternity, Noÿs is a secret agent from the far future. She places herself in Harlan's life because she has a mission to accomplish, a mission that depends on Harlan falling in love with Noÿs. Before she ever meets Harlan, Noÿs has viewed the future and seen that if she plays her cards correctly, she and Harlan will end up living together happily in the future.
I understand that some people find this aspect of The End of Eternity to be objectionable. Fine. If it does not float your boat then move on. I recommend that you exit the science fiction section of the universe and head on over to the romance section where you can find thousands of novels that involve other kinds of love stories.
But first, why bother putting an end to Eternity? The idea is, that by destroying Eternity, Earthlings will not put effort into developing time travel -instead they will develop nuclear energy and space travel and spread to the stars, creating an infinite future for Humanity. Ta Da! Noÿs is from the far future, from within the "Hidden Centuries", a part of human history that has been cut off from Eternity. Noÿs and her people can View possible alternative Realities, so they know that Eternity must be destroyed if Humanity is to survive. Noÿs, as the secret agent from the Hidden Centuries, must travel back in Time and destroy Eternity.
Knowing all this, she selects a specific M.N.C. that will allow her to live out the remainder of her life happily in the 20th century. Specifically, she arranges things so that she and Harlan will fall in love and they will be together in a shared future. All the other MNCs available to Noÿs do not have such a happy ending for her.
So how does Noÿs destroy Eternity and make Harlan fall in love with her? She travels back in time to the 482nd century and poses as a (very sexy) woman of that time. Why the 482nd? And from among all Eternals, why use Harlan (specifically) as the tool to destroy Eternity?
time loop. We must imagine that originally time travel was discovered at some point in Earth's history, say in the year X. Then, someone from the future arranged to send back into time the required information to allow time travel technology to be developed several centuries earlier than the year X.
We are never told exactly how or why that was done. By the time Harlan gets caught up in the web that Noÿs is weaving, he is already an integral part of the time loop that created Eternity. Harlan's critical role is that he is an expert on primitive Earth history, which is critical for the existence of Eternity because he can train the secret agent (Brinsley Sheridan Cooper) who will be sent back in time to the primitive period of Earth's history (before Eternity exists) in order to invent time travel and allow Eternity to come into existence. Thus, the existence of Eternity depends in a time-loopy way on the existence of Eternity.
Instead, with Noÿs disguised and playing the role of a woman from the 482nd, Harlan is sent careening down a new trajectory of life. Asimov has considerable fun showing how the uptight and sexually repressed Harlan flips his lid when he encounters Noÿs.
|Asimov's telepathic robots|
Noÿs is from millions of years in our future. What advanced technologies and powers might be at her disposal? It might be that Noÿs has been specifically selected by the people of the Hidden Centuries to be perfect bait for Harlan. It also might be that Noÿs drugs Harlan and/or uses telepathy to control his behavior and thought patterns.
"Throughout the novel, Harlan’s notions toward Noÿs are alarmingly sexist."
|Use of the term "sexism" (from the Ngram Viewer).|
He criticizes her scanty, but time-relevant clothing". Harlan points out the fact that when women are brought into Eternity (often to provide sexual partners for Eternals), it is done discretely. When Harlan arrives in the section of Eternity for the 482nd (for what he thinks is a standard Observation mission) he can't imagine why Finge is parading a sexually provocative woman in front of him. Following his training and the rules and conventions of Eternity, Harlan get angry and assumes that Finge is flaunting his authority as a Computer to bend the rules of Eternity. Harlan does not actually criticize the clothing that Noÿs wears, he objects to Finge allowing Noÿs to parade around wearing sexually provocative clothing in front of men who are trying to remain celibate and not be distracted by women.
|"I brought you another drink."|
"it’s easy to dump this book for its dull, old-fashioned tone and predictable sexist relationship patterns."
|light my fire|
|All the President's Wives by Bob Woodward|
I suppose there are some people who feel that way about meat eating. There are probably some vegetarians who don't want to touch a book that includes a character who enjoys eating meat.
|cover art by Romas Kukalis|
|We all have swords!|
|Will The End of Eternity ever come to the big screen?|
"it’s jarring to see such an old-fashioned depiction of a female character in EoE"
I think Asimov's depiction of Noÿs is almost as fresh today as it was 60 years ago. The main change for readers in 2015 is that there is a tribe of women today who were trained ("sexism" became a popular term the 1960s and peaked about 1995) to have a knee-jerk emotional reaction to male sexism, even if they are reading entertainment literature with a carefully constructed depiction of imaginary sexism being acted out by a character in science fiction story. These indoctrinated anti-sexists are at risk of self-censoring and not reading some of the great literature from the 20th century just because certain books include a "sexist" character. Thus, here in our "modern" age, we now (60 years after The End of Eternity was first published) have blog posts warning readers not to let their knee-jerk reactions keep them from reading Asimov's novel. I imagine poor Asimov turning in his grave and shaking his head.
"Extremes are never healthy" -Andrew Harlan
|The 482nd century: male supremacy is eliminated!|
But, of course, Harlan himself was born into a society at one extreme of the social spectrum that Asimov chose to explore in The End of Eternity. Harlan is easy to manipulate because of his biases: he is the perfect target for a MNC.
Yes, there was a time when some men thought that no woman should be a doctor. Asimov was not such a man. He married a doctor. Yes, even today some people struggle to have the freedom to live their life as they choose, sometimes having to struggle against gender stereotypes. These on-going struggles to deal with the consequences of sexism do not mean that it makes sense to avoid reading The End of Eternity.
Asimov was being a snarky bastard with this silly time travel novel"
That's not right. Its not even wrong. The Eternals had unwittingly made it impossible for Humanity to develop interstellar space travel technology. Asimov depicted the total cluelessness of the Eternals with respect to what they had done and the devastating implications for Humanity. The Eternals had remorse and guilt every time they helped quash the human impulse to expand and explore, always doing so in the name of safety and their misguided attempts to help Humanity. With their advanced Reality Viewing technology, the people of the Hidden Centuries could figure out that Eternity was what caused the extinction of the human species and they took action to end Eternity.
|Maximum Desired Response?|
I'm fascinated by reader's reactions to science fiction stories from the previous millennium. In 2015, many readers who stumble upon books such as The End of Eternity have no idea what they have gotten themselves into. In 1955, the people who read The End of Eternity would have almost all been willing to play Asimov's imaginative and entertaining "what if?" game and get to know Harlan and Noÿs. Nobody had to be told to keep reading the book to the end and nobody had to be told not to throw the book away after reading 30 pages because of Harlan's sexism. In the 1950s, nobody reviewed The End of Eternity and dismissed it as "another sci-fi romance" or a "boring romance with some pseudo-jargon". Is creating a generation of pseudo-science fiction fans who can't read the science fiction literature really the Maximum Desired Response of feminism?
|The social pendulum continues to swing.|
If Asimov had access to time travel in 1955 and if he had known about the sexual revolution of the 1960s, would he have changed The End of Eternity? If Asimov were alive now, would he have any regrets over the content of The End of Eternity? I suspect not. I also suspect that The End of Eternity will stand the test of time and come to be even more widely recognized as one of the great science fiction stories of the 20th century.
There are hundreds of "reviews" of The End of Eternity on the internet and many "reviewers" who just don't understand the book. For example:
"women generally do no have the aptitudes deemed crucial to deal with the psychological rigors of time travel"
|cover art by Ed Emshwiller|
One more example:
"not one of these centuries develops a society that produces enough technically and scientifically-minded women to become Eternals"
That is NOT in the book. From the same "review": "a science fiction author who literally can't imagine women as anything other than conniving seductresses who will destroy everything if allowed into the treehouse". Now I can detect the snarkiness -and it does not come from Asimov. This comment about Asimov is demonstrably false, but, of course, truth is not important when a sexist old guy is being denounced.
|In the Ekcolir Reality|
Next: time for some Jack Vance fanfiction!
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