The End of Eternity (1955) by Isaac Asimov

EndofEternity1And here’s another sci-fi romance, dated forty years earlier, by Mr. One-of-the-Big-Three Himself, Isaac Asimov.

Andrew Harlan works as an Eternal Technician, analyzing and recommending Minimum Necessary Changes (MNC) in order to guide Reality. When he meets Noÿs Lambent, a non-Eternal from a Century far from his own, he falls in love and attempts to save her from the upcoming MNC that could destroy her existence as he knows it. But is he just playing into the hands of his superiors? Or, perhaps, a more powerful guiding force?

Like Remake (1995), which I reviewed yesterday, it’s another “he barely met her, but now he desperately loves her” kind of book. And also like Remake, it’s easy to dump this book for its dull, old-fashioned tone and predictable sexist relationship patterns. However, both books’ faults lie in their shared purpose: a tongue-in-cheek critique of social standards, although Asimov’s tongue might be less in his cheek and too buried in sci-fi pseudo-jargon for ‘50s sci-fi geeks to notice the social disconnect.

Throughout the novel, Harlan’s notions toward Noÿs are alarmingly sexist. He criticizes her scanty, but time-relevant clothing, and her possibly numerous sexual liaisons. As her boyfriend, he disregards her as a simpleton—a very soft, supple simpleton. (He also refers to her as property, but so does everybody in this book.) He’s surprised when she quickly understands the nature of his job. HE’S SURPRISED TO DISCOVER SHE OWNS A BOOK ABOUT HISTORY AND ECONOMICS.

And then, when Harlan realizes that Noÿs is actually the agent of another more powerful group working against the Eternals, he’s like, “Of course she’s working against us! She had that book about History and Economics!” (239)

EndofEternity2It’s easy to mislay this sexism on the book itself and throw it across the room and then walk over to it and stomp on it and spit on it and then contact the local waste disposal authorities for a special pick up because you’re not touching that thing again.

But, if you pay attention, something’s not quite right about Harlan. From the start, we sense Harlan is a bit more uptight than his colleagues when he describes Noÿs’ homewhen:

It was an era without ethics or principles… It was hedonistic, materialistic, more than a little matriarchal…”  in which Harlan desires to enact a Change to create “… a branch in which millions of pleasure-seeking women would find themselves transformed into true, pure-hearted mothers. (25)

If that’s not narrator sarcasm about an unlikeable protagonist, then, For Time’s Sake, I don’t know what is. And then Harlan’s hated supervisor, Computer Finge (not a computer), instructs Harlan to get a girlfriend. Finge explains:

You would become less concerned about the details of a woman’s costume, less disturbed about her possible personal relations with other Eternals. (55)

Chill out, man, he says. You wouldn’t be so sexist if you would just get laid. Oh, Asi, if it were only that easy!

Feedback on Twitter says I’m reading too much into this, however, I disagree. For one thing, Harlan’s POV of Bayta is extremely, extremely sexist– from my modern sci-fi perspective, certainly– but from a ‘50s sci-fi perspective, it’s also a little overcooked.

In addition, having read some of Asimov’s earlier and later works, Asimov has always been more amenable to gender equality than some sci-fi writers. Even his stodgy Foundation series has some real women of agency (Bayta!), so it’s jarring to see such an old-fashioned depiction of a female character in EoE, just a few years after Foundation and Empire (1952), especially when considering Harlan’s criticisms of Noÿs’ scanty clothing and liberated sexual mores, which are basically the only parts of feminism that most vintage (and today’s!) SF writers seem to embrace. For Asimov to unironically characterize Harlan in this way would be contrary to his own worldview.

And finally, consider that Bester and Sturgeon and Clarke and Leiber and Kornbluth have been drawing female characters with intelligence and agency* for years by this point. Harlan’s viewpoint of Noÿs would only make sense in a Robert Heinlein novel.

EndofEternity3So, am I saying The End of Eternity is an important piece of feminist science fiction? No. Like most sci-fi writers of the time (male and female, unfortunately), Asimov is enacting the most Minimum Necessary Change possible to portray a gender-equal world, without scaring readers (and himself) with a true gender revolution. (And Asimov wasn’t exactly the smoothest PC-guy of his time, either.) But I am saying that, should you read this (and you might not want to because it’s mostly just a boring romance with some pseudo-jargon) fight the urge to throw it away after 30 pages, because Noÿs is actually a surprising and interesting character, she turns out to be the good guy, and Harlan’s sucky POV is designed to be sucky.

 

Other things of note:

  • Harlan? Is this a nod to some young and rambunctious up-and-comer?
  • Asimov seems to have a thing against sociologists. I suspect departmental tension at the BU faculty meetings.
  • Asimov’s narrator also drops in some ironically negative statements about space travel, which Noÿs spins positively in the final pages, which is more evidence that Asimov was being a snarky bastard with this silly time travel novel.

*By “agency,” I mean ’50s-style agency. So, you know, not cooking and nagging and being afraid all the time.

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12 thoughts on “The End of Eternity (1955) by Isaac Asimov

  1. Joseph Nebus says:

    For a rarity, Asimov rewrote The End of Eternity nearly wholesale, and the earlier version was printed in the mid-80s in a book called The Alternate Asimovs. So the development can be traced out some. In that version Harlan is a different and more minor character named Horemm or something like that. Asimov commented he didn’t know why he changed the name, past that Horemm seemed acceptable for a minor unpleasant character but not for a protagonist. Why Harlan, though, he couldn’t remember, but he couldn’t dismiss the obvious reference.

    I think it was Gunn who pointed out that Asimov wrote this book, which ends in pretty much a demand that people take wild, unguided, unsafe changes, at the same time Asimov’s fights with his department at Boston University were growing most severe, and he was preparing himself emotionally to walk away and be a freelance writer.

    The Eternity setting is a sexist one, and Harlan sexist even within that. I would like to think that Asimov was being a bit self-aware with that. After all, the whole setup of a bunch of self-selected time lords keeping humanity safely regulated and guided is not far off the “fans are slans” idea of how society would be great if only SF readers were in charge. Harlan has a couple dim ideas that maybe things ought to be better, that get pretty well quashed. It mocks the awakened-guy-rebels-aganst-utopia frame of the plot.

    And the Eternals can’t be nearly as bright as they tell themselves they are. After all, Harlan keeps observing how the lack of women in Eternity produces a lot of their social problems, but women can’t generally be removed from Reality without screwing up history … but Eternity has matter-replicators that can explicitly duplicate people, so why not duplicate otherwise-promising women who can’t be removed from history, and use a duplicate? Because if Eternity were a less deranged society the whole story would collapse, I suppose.

    Liked by 2 people

    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      So you’re saying that all of my guesses were absolutely correct? Go me! 😀

      I had no idea that Asimov was experiencing issues in academia, other than just knowing from my own experience that there are always issues in academia.

      I did read in Wikipedia, I think, about the earlier version and the name change. Harlan Ellison was just blooming at that time, and I doubt he was ever a wallflower. I wouldn’t be surprised if his name had impressed itself on Asimov at some point.

      I completely reacted to the sexism of the novel, but I couldn’t reconcile it with the impression that I have of Asimov– sure, he’s full of himself, but his books do a better job of embracing all kinds of progress, including social progress. I have not yet read Van Vogt’s Slan yet, but I have been warned, but it didn’t even occur to me that this story might have been in dialogue with that. Whatever the case, the ending certainly saved what could have been a very problematic book, and indicates that Asimov planned it that way all along. He played the unreliable protagonist game to the max.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. The whole setup sounds like a giant jibe at the “fans-are-slans” element of fandom, which just goes to show that, well, actually, nerdsplainers really are the worst. (Though I think having “Eternal Technician” on your resume would be pretty boss.)

    Also:
    Computer Finge (not a computer)
    Now that’s just a bad case of misrepresentation and I’m glad you clarified the matter.

    Liked by 2 people

    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      Joseph Nebus above said basically the same thing about it being in dialogue with the “fans are slans” message. I have not yet read that book, but I have been warned about it. I guess I should pick it up sometime just to get that rant out of the way.

      There are some days when I feel like my job title could be prefaced with “Eternal.” Those are the long days.

      As for Computer Finge… I’m sure more experienced vintage readers figured it out right away, but it took more than a few conversations between Harlan and Finge before I was absolutely sure that Finge was just a man whose job title is “Computer.”

      Liked by 1 person

  3. You might be disappointed to learn that this is one of my favorite Asimov novels. I don’t look past the sexism in any of these older stories, but for some books in some time periods I find that it doesn’t affect my enjoyment of the story the way others do. For example, I can forgive gender issues in Heinlein’s earlier stuff, but find all the ‘everyone having sex with everyone’ and incest of his later stuff too ridiculous to deal with.

    And I’m not saying this as a copout, just as my assumption, that being a male I don’t “see” those things as clearly as other readers might and I’ve certainly not had to deal with issues of reading my favorite genre and not having good characters that I can identify with.

    At any rate, you would find my review of my experience with the book to be wildly different and would probably shake your head and wonder just what book I was reading.

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    • I’m so sorry Carl, I completely missed your comment! Every once in a while, I have to go back through my posts because it always happens to someone… usually someone outside of the wordpress ecosystem.

      I’m not surprised you like Asimov and I enjoy him too! I actually don’t think he’s sexist with this book, and from what I know about him, he always leaned toward progressive politics. (Though sometimes his arrogance could hurt people, like Sam Delany.) I admired him long before I ever read any of his work because he was president of the American Humanist Association, which I have always followed. (And I also attended Boston University for grad school, so I’ve always felt a bit of connection to him because of that.) I think he portrays Harlan in that way to make a point about Noÿs. It’s a bit of the unreliable protagonist game he’s playing at: the hero isn’t who you think.

      My qualms with Asimov are that he’s not the best writer or most interesting storyteller, but he knew that. His stuck style couldn’t compete with his more sophisticated contemporaries, and he admitted as much. But like you often say, sometimes you just get a craving for that old school flavor and Asimov is a good one to keep on rotation for that. I enjoyed the Robot series and “The Mule,” but it is hard to put him on a pedestal after comparing him to the work that came from some of his contemporaries.

      And yes, for Heinlein, anything Double Star and before I’m more likely to enjoy. The stuff after that make me nauseous.

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  4. Well, I think this won’t be the Asimov I start with, though you have given me hope (if minimal) for some of his other work. Which is good because I am, right this very second, wearing an I, Robot t-shirt with his name on it, which despite having never read a word of his stuff I had to have because it has such a cool robot. Irrelevant as that may be…where would you vote one such as me should start on his work.

    In a tangential note, I started reading Odd John last night.

    Like

    • Ugh, I missed this comment, too!?

      Oh yeah, Asimov is a good guy (see above response), just a stodgy writer. His robot books are good old-fashioned fun, which has more to do with his Daneel Olivaw android character because I just love best-friend-android stories. Think Data from TNG, who was inspired by Daneel.

      Yay for Odd John! Curious what you think…speaking of SF writers who were 20 years more sophisticated, yet 20 years earlier. than Asimov.

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  5. […] I added two more reviews, all about sci-fi romance: Remake (1995) by Connie Willis and The End of Eternity (1955) by Isaac […]

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  6. unsubscriber says:

    Great review, I love the Signet cover here too. All the best.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. […] Time’s Sake! From The End of Eternity by Issac Asimov (ex. For Time’s Sake, some Asimov fans are godspitting […]

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  8. […] The End of Eternity by Isaac Asimov – Now, this is a book you might want to dump in the toilet, BUT, if you bother– which, you really don’t need to because it’s pretty tiresome– push through to the end because what you’ll find interesting is that Asimov is actually making a rather vigorous feminist statement. Amid all of the pseudoscience time-travel tedium, he’s actually drawn up a repulsive protagonist hero with views as skewed as his time travelling chronology. When his female foil turns out to be the actual hero of the story, and not the slutty doormat he expects, the protagonist’s mind is blown. […]

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