Nov 28, 2014

The Man Who Invented Eternity

David Mattingly
cover art - 1981
Isaac Asimov was the man who invented Eternity. In this blog post, I want to explore the nature of science fiction and use Asimov's novel, The End of Eternity, as a jumping off point for my comments.

During his career, Asimov promoted the idea that science fiction plays a special and important role in our culture that goes far beyond entertainment. Asimov wrote, "Science fiction is the one branch of literature that accepts the fact of change, the inevitability of change." - from a 1981 editorial by Isaac Asimov called "The Influence of Science Fiction"

Asimov enthroned by Rowena Morrill
Asimov stressed the importance of science fiction stories as a source of healthy exercise for the imagination, as a playful learning tool that can shape the human mind and allow people to cope successfully with change. He also suggested that  "Science fiction is at its best if the events described could not be played out at all except in in a social or physical background significantly different than our own." I understand what Asimov was trying to say, but I've spent more than decade trying to prove him wrong about this last point.

In that 1981 editorial, Asimov listed examples of people who had grown up reading science fiction stories and who were therefore ready, as adults, to engineer and usher in important technological and cultural changes. One of the interesting cultural changes that took place during my lifetime was a startling new willingness of people to think about the possibility of alien creatures that might visit Earth. In my science fiction stories, I particularly like to contemplate the Fermi Paradox and the mystery of why we have no evidence for the existence of alien beings.

Time Machine by Dave Globerson
The "Eternity" of my title (The Man Who Invented Eternity) is the Eternity that Asimov invented in 1953: his imagined time travel device. Asimov's Eternity is not just a machine that you can sit inside of and ride into the past or future. Asimov's Eternity is a place, a human-created space-time bubble where the Eternals exist outside of the normal flow of Time. From their base of operations in Eternity, the Eternals (like Andrew Harlan) can reach out into Time and change the course of human history.

Mushroom cloud
In The End of Eternity, Asimov created a "what if?" thought experiment, a playground for the imagination where it is possible to explore what might happen to Humanity if we had the power to correct and prevent all of our mistakes, particularly all of our "technological disasters".

In the year when Asimov invented Eternity, the world was confronting the newly-realized human power to explode thermonuclear bombs. Asimov wrote a mushroom cloud into his story. The plot of The End of Eternity centers on the idea that if humans used time travel to prevent the development of nuclear weapons then Humanity would survive for 10,000,000 years but then die out.

Mental Time Travel
Example of play: The Dead Widowers.
Asimov thought that science fiction is good for us. What good is such a story as The End of Eternity? To answer that, I want to shift gears and briefly move this discussion over into the world of scientific research.

In an article called "The power of possibility: causal learning, counterfactual reasoning, and pretend play", it was suggested that human evolution provided us with a long juvenile period during which we can engage in exploratory play. During that play, children can experiment with causal models of reality. Later, as adults, we can exploit what we learned through play. In fact, many of us never stop playing with ideas and models and we constantly engage in "mental time travel", imaginary projections of future behavioral possibilities and outcomes.

Amžinybės pabaiga
I'm pretty comfortable with the idea that our well-developed capacity to engage in play has become a central element in the human survival strategy. However, curiosity can kill the cat and primates playing with fire can ultimately give us the power to destroy ourselves.

In The End of Eternity, nuclear war is depicted as the technological end point that Eternals strive to avoid at all cost. Of course, there are many other ways that tool using primates can cause havoc. Asimov also discusses "dreamies" and matter duplication as technologies that never result in favorable outcomes.

Play and Causal Thinking
Asimov started out as an obsessed reader of science fiction stories and that obsession turned into a compulsion to write and publish his own stories. Because of his need to write, Asimov became one of the world's most prolific authors, writing both science fiction and other types of fiction as well as millions upon millions of additional words of nonfiction. He even wrote obsessively to himself in his diary and about himself in his autobiographies. Sadly, he died just before he could have started writing webpages. Imagine what Asimov's blog would be like, were he still with us.

Cover art for the edition of
The End of Eternity that I currently own.
Asimov made a living by selling the products of his fertile imagination to his fans. It was easy for both meddling editors and book reviewers to piss off Asimov. We live in a society where stupid and clueless book reviewers can confuse and distract book readers and cost an author large amounts of money, not to mention their peace of mind. Asimov wrote, "I have never made any secret of the fact that I dislike the concept of reviews and the profession of reviewing".

Asimov kindly provided a list of requirements that must be met for a book reviewer to be competent. Given his strong emotional reaction against clueless reviewers, it might actually be for the best that Asimov did not live into the age of the internet where it is now possible for every Tom, Dick and Harry to put book reviews out on the internet. At least in Asimov's era, influential book reviews were likely to be written by paid professionals who had a chance of acting like a professional when they wrote and published a book review. Still, even in the previous millennium, plenty of opportunities existed for book reviewers to publish bumbling reviews of Asimov's books and trigger the emotional pain that he always felt when receiving a "bad review".

"novel of the future"?
Similarly, a meddling book editor can enrage an author just by changing one word of a story .... or rejecting a story because of the editor's own irrational prejudices, or adding a silly illustration ... or ..... well, there are probably an endless number of ways. However, Asimov gladly admitted that there were times when editors improved his stories with small alterations. For example, an editor changed the title of his first Black Widowers mystery story by the addition of one word, a change that pleased Asimov. When Cele Goldsmith rewrote the ending of Asimov's story called "What Is This Thing Called Love?", Asimov was happy with her contribution to the spirit of the story.

I discovered Asimov's time travel novel, The End of Eternity, by way of the 1970s paperback edition that sports a cover illustration by Paul Lehr. I like to think of the (tiny) couple towards the bottom of Paul's depiction as being the time travelers Noÿs and Andrew. The contrast between the floating obelisks and the ancient ruins is a good fit for the story. I've previously blogged (repeatedly) about The End of Eternity and my belief that it is something of a SciFi masterpiece. Below, I allow myself to be diverted into a nonreview of the The End of Eternity that was provoked by a published review of the story.

Novel of the Future?
by Franco Castelluccio
Is The End of Eternity a "novel of the future" as was proclaimed on the cover? Wendy Lesser seemed to think so when she wrote her review of the novel. It must be a homework assignment at some college: students forced to analyze how closely Asimov "predicted" the future in one of his science fiction stories. The idea that a fan of science fiction would expect a science fiction author to predict the future is bizarre.

Wendy states in her review that when she was in her teens she was an obsessed science fiction fan. Maybe her obsession ended when some college professor made her write a term paper analyzing how closely a science fiction writer like Asimov "predicted" the course of the future in a science fiction story.

Wendy found it remarkable that Asimov, writing in 1950s, could have imagined a small electronic device that could hold an audio recording of 60,000,000 spoken words. However, as a trained chemist, Asimov knew just how tiny molecules are and the "double helix" model of "recording" information at the molecular level (as our DNA does) was big news in the scientific community in 1953, the year when Asimov started writing his time travel story. Need we be surprised that Asimov provided an Observer like Andrew Harlan with a handy-dandy "molecular recording device"? No.

And yet, Wendy begins her review of The End of Eternity by insisting that the idea that "an entire bookshelf of bound volumes can be stored in a gadget the size of a fingertip" was not "even a mote in a scientist’s eye". Of course, Asimov had long been writing about robots with positronic brains. Asimov knew that since biological evolution had discovered ways to store huge amounts of information in a human brain then some day it would become possible to make an artificial brain with vast amounts of information stored in a small space.

Rosalind Franklin
As a scientist, Asimov was immersed in the scientific milieu of his age and it was widely known that since miniature information storage was already used inside living organisms then it was reasonable to extrapolate, theoretically, to future man-made computing machines that would also use very small memory storage devices.

In 1944 the scientific evidence was accumulating that DNA was the "genetic molecule". At that time, Erwin Schrödinger explained theoretically how patterns of covalent bonds in large molecules can store information. People like Rosalind Franklin were stimulated by that theoretical analysis to do biology experiments and discover the detailed structure of the genetic storage molecule, DNA. Other theoreticians like Francis Crick took the hard-won experimental data and made the double helix model of DNA.

Alan Turing, who worked with the first clumsy memory devices of the early computing age, none-the-less expected (in 1950) that by the start of the new millennium advances in computing would make it possible for people to build machines with human-like abilities such as using human languages. 

Writing in 1959, Richard Feynmen suggested that, by the year 2000, great advances would be made in making tiny devices, and the only puzzle would then be why it had taken computer engineers so long to begin working on the task of miniaturizing their machines. Of course scientists and engineers were not slackers, they "simply" had to invent and build a new industry for creating nanoscale computing circuits.

Should we be surprised that Asimov depicted Andrew Harlan using a molecular recorder from the year 5500? Wendy claimed that, "Asimov thought all this would take many centuries". So, simultaneously it is a miracle that Asimov could imagine a "molecular recorder" and he was also a bozo for "predicting" that such devices would require centuries of R and D rather than decades? No, no, no, And no. In The End of Eternity, Asimov never predicted when any technological advance would occur. It is absurd and abominable for anyone to even suggest such a thing, let alone make it the kick-off point for their review of Asimov's book.

The Pace of Technological Advance
In The End of Eternity Asimov explored the idea that Eternity is simultaneously 1) a place outside of Time, 2) a time travel device, and 3) a kind of cultural stasis device.

Wendy apparently misunderstood the key implications of the idea that the Eternals, who live within the Eternity time travel device, do not travel through time to consult with their future selves. Using time travel to meet yourself is explicitly described by Asimov as being taboo among the Eternals.

Eternity is some type of space-time bubble where the Eternals reside in "sections" that are constructed living spaces that each connect to a particular century. When working as a time travel Technician, Andrew must travel to the correct section of Eternity and then cross over into the "nearby" desired part of Time in order to apply his Technician's Touch and alter the course of history.

Within The End of Eternity, an Eternal who is stationed and living in the section for the 575th century is living his life in parallel with other Eternals who are stationed in the 3000th century. Wendy is confused by this and she thinks it should be possible for Andrew to travel through time and arrive either in his past or future at the section for the 3000th century. However, that's not how Asimov depicted Eternity. His whole plot would collapse if Wendy's version of time travel were true.

Reality Chain
According to Wendy, the effect of Eternity on human society is to create a "slightly dull equilibrium". However,  Asimov went to a great deal of trouble to explain that the Eternals were constantly making Reality Changes that prevent Earthlings from making "harmful" technological advances. In other words (Wendy, are you listening?) the Reality depicted by Asimov (which we can call the Mallansohn Reality) involves a totally manipulated and altered pace for technological development. Asimov explicitly shows that the Mallansohn Reality has a completely different rate of technological advance than we should expect in our future. In our Reality, where Eternity does not exist, we are free to develop new technologies without the watchful Eternals being there, waiting to step in, remove dangerous technologies and "correct" our mistakes. It is a fool's errand to compare the pace of technological advance in Asimov's fictional Mallansohn Reality to what has happened in our world and then gloat or pretend to be surprised that Asimov could be so wrong about the pace of advance in electronics. We can conclude nothing about Asimov's "powers of prediction" just because it takes until the year 5,500 for a really good molecular voice recorder to be made in the Mallansohn Reality while we already have iPods.

The Eternal Past
Had the blurb writer actually gotten to the end of The End of Eternity then it should have been obvious that all of the events in the novel are depicted by Asimov as taking place in the past, not the future. At the end of the story, the time traveling Noÿs and Andrew arrive in the 1930s and begin their new lives as residents of the 20th century. Their arrival in the Primitive triggers a Reality Change, putting an end to Eternity and bringing into existence a new Reality, a whole new timeline in which the nature and pace of technological advance will be radically altered from what Asimov describes for the Mallansohn Reality.

The Hierion Domain
Science fiction authors have long invented imaginary particles in order to account for plot devices like faster-than-light travel or time travel. Within Eternity, in the playground of his imagination, Asimov spoke of there being seemingly material things that were actually immaterial. 

For the Exodemic Fictional Universe I imagine that in the future we Earthlings will discover that there are many more fundamental particles that go beyond our current Standard Model of hadronic matter.

I divide these additional particles into two families, the hierions and the sedrons.

Fun with Hierion Tubes.
Another long-time staple of science fiction stories are "extra dimensions". I like to imagine some kind of "explanation" or excuse for how Eternity could exist as a bubble beyond normal space-time. I've taken to using the term "hierion domain" to refer to the "location" of such space-time bubbles. Also, I use the term "hierion tube" to refer to the portals that link from the hadronic domain to the hierion domain.

Asimov wrote about "Eternity" as the place where the Eternals like Andrew lived out their lives and some readers never "got it". They never noticed that the Eternals do not normally travel into their own pasts. The whole point of The End of Eternity is that it could be dangerous to travel into the could disrupt the very existence of Eternity itself. Of course, that is exactly the mission of meta-technician Noÿs.

Cheesy Romance
In her review of The End of Eternity, Wendy wrote, "Cheesy as the love story inevitably is"...

Asimov is frequently criticized for his portrayal of Noÿs, in particular, and women, in general, in The End of Eternity. In my view, such criticisms make about as much sense as complaining in his life time Plato never proclaimed Jesus as Lord.

The Desired Response
Why is Noÿs in the story at all? Yes, she and Andrew fall in love, but really, that is not the point. Asimov was not trying to write a love story. In particular, Asimov was not trying to write a love story that would appeal to the many women who make it their business to criticize male science fiction authors for their inability to write love stories that appeal to women.

Noÿs is a meta-technician. As a Technician of Eternity, Andrew must slip into Time and secretly alter the course of history. As a meta-technician, Noÿs had to slip into Eternity and try to secretly destroy Eternity from within. 

As Noÿs ultimately explains to Andrew, using the advanced technology of her age (far in our future) she was able to look into their shared future and see that she and Andrew would fall in love and live happily together. For that reason, she selected him as her target for her mission to destroy Eternity. In my view, that is a very romantic notion. I applaud Asimov for realizing that he could create a fun story where the very nature of a male-dominated Eternity allowed for its easy destruction by a female secret agent from the far future. And yes, some women do recognize the brilliance of Asimov's plot and how he brought together Noÿs and Andrew from across a gulf of 10,000,000 years so that their love might be true.

Not About You
One of Asimov's rules for how to be a good reviewer of books is "the review must not be a showcase for the reviewer". And yet Wendy felt impelled to tell us about: 1) her education in the Palo Alto school system, 2) that her father worked for IBM, 3) the obscure model name (Kaypro) of her first computer and 4) how much she despised having to feed punch cards into a computer. Most annoyingly, Wendy had to inform readers of her own personal opinion: "Part of the pleasure of reading old science fiction is precisely this: with the special powers vested in you by historical hindsight, you can compare the playfully visionary forecasts with what actually took place." I've explained above, why playing that game, in the way that Wendy played it, is misguided and futile in the case of The End of Eternity. I suspect that what was really going on was that Wendy had gotten into a time machine and come back to warn us in 2010 that her book "Why I Read: The Serious Pleasure of Books" would be forthcoming and full of her opinions about the joy of reading.

However, I think Asimov got into his time machine and went even further back in time to write a warning for reviewers like Wendy: "...this is the point where even the cleverest reviewer (perhaps especially the cleverest reviewer) can come a cropper". Asimov warned, "The purpose of the review is not to demonstrate the superior erudition of the reviewer or make it seem that the reviewer could write the book better than the author."

I'm glad that Wendy had fun pretending that The End of Eternity was a failed attempt to make "visionary forecasts", but I wish she had not shoe-horned her play time into her review of Asimov's book. Mercifully, Asimov himself did not have to read her review. Sadly, it provoked enough emotional reaction in me to cover both mine and Asimov's account. As an addendum to Asimov's rules for reviewers, I'd add the special Wendy Rule: don't go more than 500 words into your review before actually telling the reader about the story you are reviewing.

Unearthly Powers
Source. Click image to enlarge.
I suppose that Wendy posted her review of The End of Eternity under the heading "Unearthly Powers" because she views the Eternals as "unearthly". However, the reason why Noÿs must destroy Eternity is because aliens on other worlds of the galaxy spread out and settle all the available planets while Earth concerns itself with time travel and "safe" technological development as selected by the Eternals. When humans of the far future finally developed practical technology for interstellar travel, it was too late. There was no place left in the galaxy for humans to spread out to from Earth and Humanity slowly died out. In order to give Humanity a chance to spread to the stars and survive, Eternity must be destroyed.

Daneel the conductor
Under the influence of John Campbell, Asimov developed the idea of an "all human galaxy". He even suggested the idea that robots had used time travel to create conditions in our galaxy so that we humans did not have to compete with alien species that had evolved on other worlds. Since most of Asimov's science fiction stories are set in the "all human galaxy" of the Foundation, The End of Eternity is something of an anomaly. At the very end of his Foundation Saga (in Foundation and Earth), Asimov suggested that aliens would eventually arrive in our galaxy from other galaxies.

In The End of Eternity, Asimov posed an interesting dilemma: what if human survival depends on our ability to harness the power of dangerous scientific discoveries like nuclear fission? Asimov depicted Noÿs as being certain that Humanity must risk using dangerous technologies. The potential damage that might be done outweighs the mundane existence that we would have if we always took the "safe alternative".

The Exode Trilogy is really a fan fiction sequel to both Asimov's Foundation Saga and The End of Eternity. I agree with Asimov about the important role that science fiction can play in stimulating the minds of readers. The Exode Trilogy is mental exercise that challenges readers to ask: what if aliens from distant worlds long ago visited Earth?

What if the very existence of the human species was made possible by aliens? Since the Exode story originated with my ruminations about Asimov's science fiction, I've found it impossible to resist inserting Asimov into my story as a character. I depict Asimov as a time traveler who is sent into his own past where he can help establish his own writing career.

I had so much fun inserting Asimov into the Exode Trilogy that I also made myself a character in the story. As "the Editor" of the Trilogy, I must struggle to reveal and publicize the secret history of Earth. The story is still under construction and collaborating authors are welcome. With the recent loss of Ivory, I'm currently feeling the need for a new collaborator.

More posters and cover images.
Related Reading: my blog post about science fiction as a literary genre
2015: More comments and another non-review for The End of Eternity

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