If there’s one thing I’m a sucker for, it’s a good alternate-history piece of speculative fiction. There’s nothing like the navel-gazing pleasure a lot of these stories provide. So what could be better than a book that posits that there are people out there creating new realities and new histories all the time? As The End of Eternity proves, not a whole heck of a lot.
The story follows Andrew Harlan, a man who is responsible for making some of the changes in the flow of time in Reality. He and all the other people who work to perform these changes live in what is called Eternity, an outside-time location. Here people (mostly men) are trained from puberty to study Reality culture, preserve artifacts, decide on how to alter Reality, calculate Changes, and make those Changes. Harlan is a Technician, which makes him one of the detested and feared group that actually makes the final decision and makes the Change.
Harlan is an isolated and lonely person. His few interpersonal relationships are solely work-related — his first boss, whom he detests; the esteemed elder who takes him under his wing; the trainee he tutors in Primitive (pre-27th-century) history. He has no family. No Eternal does. They give them up when they start training, and are never allowed to go back.
Thus, when Harlan is introduced to Noÿs, a (gasp!) woman working as a secretary for his former supervisor, he does not understand how his feelings of attraction are supposed to work. He attempts to suppress them, but fails when he is sent to her time in Reality to do more study before a planned Change. This is not surprising, seeing as he was sent to stay with her.
His infatuation leads him to take some drastic actions. I’m not going to outline them here; that would ruin the surprise. I will say, though, that the ending is not what I suspected, and shows, I think, a rather more nuanced view of the importance of the individual in relation to concerns for the overall good.
I had my misgivings about Asimov when I read I, Robot a couple of months back, and I hesitated in requesting this book by him through inter-library loan. This, however, is worth it. Rather than a woman who is overly emotional, Noÿs is feminine but also competent. She is a rarity in the Eternal world, but is, from the start, capable of being both openly loving and intellectually capable — in other words, she’s like most actual women.
Harlan responds to this, and does some interesting things in response. He is a good study in the book-smart, experience-dumb bookworms and nerds that exist in sufficient numbers for them to have been a tried and true group for the last century, at least. While Noÿs’ reactions are real, his are artificial at first. He can’t trust them, and has to grow through the emotional atrophy his training and occupation impose. While his decisions, at times, seem to be overreactions, they show that Asimov understood that men are just as capable of letting their emotions get the best of them.
This is a fantastic exploration of both reality and relationships. It made me surprised every time I looked up at the clock — how could another hour have gone by? That’s the measure of a good book.