Jan 26, 2020

Harlan’s Punishment?

cover art by Milford Hunter
Here in 2020 I'm celebrating the science fiction stories of Isaac Asimov. I'm a huge fan of Asimov's time travel novel, The End of Eternity and a character that he invented for that story: Noÿs Lambent. The End of Eternity was first published in 1955 as a hard-cover book.

First Impressions
A glowing review of The End of Eternity was published before the end of 1955 in Authentic Science Fiction Monthly. The unnamed author of that book review felt that The End of Eternity was Asimov's "greatest work to date", praising it for hitting a sweet spot between Asimov's overly-complex Foundation Saga (which had originally been published piece after piece in serialized pulp magazine story format) and lesser novels by Asimov such as The Currents of Space (1952).
1955 review of The End of Eternity
cover art by Ed Emshwiller
Yes, it is unusual to see Asimov being praised for "excellent characterization", particularly since the main character in The End of Eternity is not a very likable person (his name is Andrew Harlan).

Expertly Constructed
What does it mean to say that The End of Eternity is "expertly constructed"? Asimov spent a short time in the army during World War II and occasionally we readers get a taste of the colorful language that Asimov probably heard during that time. One of the workers inside Eternity describes the curvaceous Noÿs Lambent as "built like a force field latrine" (see brick house).

As a first-time reader of this novel you might initially assume that Noÿs is present in The End of Eternity for only one purpose, to provide a bit of eye candy for Andrew. You cannot be more wrong! By the end of the story, readers see Noÿs in a completely new way.

Asimov liked to create stories in which the reader could understand both of the two competing sides in a conflict and remain uncertain which side, if either, should win in the end. In The End of Eternity, Asimov expertly depicts an imaginary culture (known as "Eternity"), making it come alive in the minds of readers and he shows us why Harlan is seduced by it, despite its many shortcomings. Then, ultimately, in the end Harlan changes his mind about everything in his life and readers understand the true role that Noÿs Lambent plays. Noÿs provides Harlan with a totally different world view, forcing him to question everything he holds dear.

No Accounting for Taste (1956)
The review of The End of Eternity by Damon Knight that was published in Science Fiction Stories (March 1956) provides a 180 degrees reversed view of the novel compared to the earlier review in Authentic Science Fiction Monthly (discussed above). Knight complains that The End of Eternity is too complex and cluttered with an overload of mind-numbing technical jargon from Eternity.

in the Ekcolir Reality
Original cover art by Frank Freas
and Edmund Emshwiller
Knight complained that the characters in The End of Eternity were almost knocked out of existence by all the gadgets and "double-talk" in the story. Knight described Asimov as part of the "Old Guard" of science fiction that was being replaced by a new generation of writers who were making more "digestible" science fiction. At the time, Asimov was only 36 years of age, so it is amusing to see him described by Knight as part of the "Old Guard". After voicing his complaints, Knight admits, "Asimov's story is fascinating".

Two Types of Sci Fi Fans
In his review of The End of Eternity I suspect that Knight was dancing around the difference between science fiction fans who 1) are science nerds and 2) fans who don't know much about science. I started reading Asimov's novels when I was about 12 years old and fell in love with his complex and wordy stories, so I have to conclude that Asimov's style simply suits some people's tastes and not others.

Love in the 482nd Century
A more recent review of The End of Eternity by Marc Barham can be found at The Time Travel Nexus. After Andrew Harlan realizes that Noÿs is an agent from the far future (the "Hidden Centuries") he decides that he must kill her in order to protect Eternity. Barham calls this "Harlan's Punishment".

When Andrew first meets Noÿs, he believes that she is from the 482nd century (what we would normally describe as the far future, past the year 48,200). In his Foundation Saga, Asimov had imagined a future in which humans had by then colonized 25,000,000 Earth-like planets of the galaxy. However, in the Reality of The End of Eternity, there is no human colonization of the galaxy. In the the 482nd, women lead independent lives and can dress like liberated women, shamelessly showing off their beautiful bodies. Andrew falls in love with Noÿs and when he fears that he will not be allowed to have her because of the rules of Eternity, he lashes out and tries to destroy Eternity.

Destroying Eternity would not be the end of the world. "Eternity" is the time travel system that Asimov imagined for The End of Eternity. The "Eternals" are residents of Eternity, a constructed space-time bubble, outside of normal Time, that allows easy access for the Eternals to all future times.

In a metaphorical sense, Andrew is "punished" when he believes that he must kill his beloved Noÿs, but he is never actually punished by the authorities of Eternity. In fact, the top Eternal assures Andrew that he will not be punished for having taken Noÿs out of the 482nd century in a gallant (if misguided) attempt to keep her from being erased from time.

A Detective Novel?
detective Baley
Asimov loved mystery stories and he intentionally tried to write some of his Sci Fi novels as detective mysteries. Metaphorically, Andrew must do some "detective work" when he needs to research the history of Eternity (much of his research is done in the "section library" of the 575th century). Noÿs has planted in his mind the realization that all of Eternity depends on a strange time travel loop in which the Eternity time travel system was brought into existence with the help of a time traveler from the future (Vikkor Mallansohn). Once Andrew's library research confirms this startling idea, he believes that he can negotiate with the authorities to keep Noÿs alive.

Noÿs and Andrew prepare
to travel into the past
I think what Barham means by calling The End of Eternity a "detective story" is that Asimov did a masterful job of keeping the time travel mission that Noÿs is carrying out a complete secret until the last few pages of the novel. Andrew is a hopeless dupe and he never figures out what is going on until Noÿs explains everything. In fact, Andrew was the specific Eternal who was targeted by Noÿs because he would be putty in her hands.

A Love Story
In the end, Andrew does not mind having been tricked by Noÿs because he realizes that she loves him and her plans for the future of Humanity really are for the best. For some reason, Barham says that Noÿs is from "the decadent 575th century". In The End of Eternity it is only Andrew, who comes from a sexually conservative century, who views the 482nd century as decadent.

La fin de l'éternité
Free Will
Asimov was often amused by the interpretations that readers invented for his fiction. In his review, Marc Barham tells us that The End of Eternity "involves philosophic considerations of free will, social planning, evolution and human advancement... in a way that feels shaped by the political dialectic of the ‘Free’ world versus the ‘Communist’ world".

I'm always pleased to take note when other people write long discussions of a story that I like, but in this case, I must scratch my head and say that communism has never entered my thinking while reading The End of Eternity. A great thing about novels is that each reader brings their own perspective to the story. In my case, as a biology nerd, I like the idea that Noÿs was from a time far in our future (10,000,000 years in our future) after which human biology had changed significantly; humans of the future kept evolving (or were genetically engineered). My favorite interpretation is that Noÿs could put ideas into Andrew's mind by some sort of telepathy. If so, does Harlan have any level of "free will" or is he simple the puppet of Noÿs and her telepathic super-power?

Earth's Reality Chain
Unplug when not in use!
I'm skeptical about Barham's suggestion that The End of Eternity somehow encapsulated the cold war antagonism between "individualism and collectivism". Asimov needed an organizational power structure in Eternity that was easy to portray and also was easy to topple when the time came. What Asimov depicted as the governing structure of Eternity is like the governing board of a big corporation. I like to imagine that by the time Andrew tries to destroy Eternity, Eternity had already served its purpose. The positronic robots who had created it used Noÿs as their secret agent who could put an end to Eternity's dominion over Humanity. The Mallansohn Reality (as depicted in The End of Eternity) was an artificial construct that could easily be unraveled when the time came to end Eternity.

The Foundation Reality
The Foundation Reality
Andrew and Noÿs escape from the Mallansohn Reality and bring into existence a new Reality. It is a Reality which Noÿs has already been able to View by using the advanced Reality Viewing technology available to her people 10,000,000 years in our future. I like to imagine that when Andrew and Noÿs went back in time to the 1930s, the Mallansohn Reality was replaced by the Foundation Reality.

H. G. Wells
In his review of The End of Eternity, Barham mentions the influence of Herbert Wells on Asimov. In an essay about time travel, Asimov mentioned The Time Machine as being the "first true time-travel story" and he wrote that Wells was "probably the best science fiction writer of all time". However, I have never found evidence that Wells ever tried to write science fiction. In The Time Machine, Wells displayed no interest in creating a believable depiction of the future or a technology for time travel.
1920s television in the Ekcolir Reality (source).

Anti-Science Fiction
You could even call The Time Machine anti-science fiction. Good old Joe, working in his basement invents the first artificial life form or time machine or space ship or anti-aging pill or... well, you get the idea. It is not science. It is a fantasy story teller using a pretend "scientific breakthrough" to get their magical fantasy story started.

Isaac Asimov had some training in how to do science research. Probably more important, he was part of the governement-run effort during World War II to use science and technology to defeat Nazi Germany and the Japanese Empire. When Asimov wrote his time travel story, he depicted an entire organization that was devoted to making time travel possible.

dystopia or utopia?
Using his personal subjective lenses, Barham looks at The End of Eternity and sees "a World State administered by an enlightened elite". However, if we must view The End of Eternity through a political lens, in my imagination, I see the Eternals as a kind of "puppet government" established by unseen positronic robots who are lurking in the background. Sure, a group of technically-savvy workers are needed to keep Eternity running, but they display no real understanding of (or interest in) their own origins or the development of improvements to their time travel technology (such as the means to go beyond the down-when terminus or to penetrate the Hidden Centuries). The institutionalized ignorance of the Eternals is glaring and in stark contrast to Barham's theory that Asimov's story is an extension of Wells' interest in "a World State administered by an enlightened elite". Barham states flatly: "Eternity are that enlightened elite". I don't agree.

In The End of Eternity Asimov makes it clear that during the long stretch of centuries monitored by Eternity, there are many different Earthly cultures and "World States" that come and go with time. The Eternals are completely disinterested in such Earthly affairs as long as the extremes of rich and poor do not get too extreme. How anyone could read The End of Eternity and refer to the Eternals as an "enlightened elite" is baffling. The Eternals remind me of the bumbling crew of a submarine that is struggling to keep their ship functioning.

Big Brother
The Organization
Barham also compares The End of Eternity to Nineteen Eighty-Four: A Novel by George Orwell. Barham suggests that we can view Eternity as "Big Brother", actively and secretly "organising and planning the future of humanity and by definition the future of every single being in existence". The End of Eternity does not concern itself with attempts to micromanage the lives of people. Asimov focused like a laser on the technology that everyone on Earth was concerned about in the early 1950s, atomic energy technology.

2003 edition
Asimov played a "what if?" game and imagined what might happen if there was a way to suppress atomic energy technology. At the start of the space age, many science fiction stories suggested that it was only atomic energy that could power space travel. So Asimov spun a tale in which a concerted effort to control nuclear energy technology had the side-effect of trapping humans on Earth and preventing them from having a great adventure among the stars. Under these Eternity-enforced conditions of safety from technological dangers like atomic energy, in time, Humanity died out and the human species became extinct.

1984 edition
my current copy
In my view, The End of Eternity was Asimov having Sci Fi fun with a core idea of early science fiction (atomic energy technology might come with dangers, but we are smart enough to handle it), not some Or/Wells-like literary effort to decide if "a governmental Big Brother is always bad for Humanity" or "some techno-elite Big Brother is our only hope". Not that there would have been anything wrong with that, had Asimov wanted to write such a story.

Asimov felt that both 1) stories about utopias and 2) stories about dystopias are boring. In his review of The End of Eternity, Marc Barham says:

"The End of Eternity to me seems as if Asimov has written an American version of 1984 through the lens of a futurist and a technocrat much like H.G.Wells but with the optimism of an American scientist who knows that creating Utopia is easy as long as you have all the information of Eternity at your fingertips." (source)

I really wish that Asimov had lived a loooong life and that he could have been here with us in the age of the internet and had a chance to have online discussions with people such as Marc Barham.

Asimov was an advocate for education and the idea that a well-educated group of humans would be able to successfully harness the power of science and technology, do great things, and make a wonderful future for Humanity. I don't think that Asimov was naive enough to imagine that having "information at the fingertips" of technocrats was some sort of magic formula for making the creation of a utopia easy. However, that formula is much better than alternatives such as an anti-science ignoranti that wields power through the promulgation of propaganda and misinformation.

"For Asimov, like so many writers of the Golden Age, the Manifest Destiny of mankind is to be among the stars" (source)

In his "second career" as a scientist and non-fiction science writer, Asimov was realistic about the difficulty of spreading human civilization through outer space. Asimov had fun writing Sci Fi stories about using trips through hyperspace as an imaginary way for people to quickly travel between the stars, but Asimov believed that he would be remembered for his robot stories which depicted "mechanical men" as the companions of humans. It may be the "destiny" of mankind is to make a form of artificial life that will be able spread among the stars.

Related Reading: more discussion of The End of Eternity

Next: Artificial life in Frank Herbert's Destination: Void.
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