I’m a big fan of used book stores. Shelves of dirty, old, used up books. My copy of The End of Eternity came from an even grimier origin, the “free bin” at the library. Yes, books so used up that the library doesn’t even want to keep them anymore. This particular book had a big circular indent on the back cover, perhaps somebody used it as a pot rest at some point? I will never know. What I do know is that I have no regrets about holding onto this book, despite the smell. It’s not a book that gets regular mention in the Asimov cannon, but it’s certainly not one to be dismissed. Clocking in at 192 pages it’s a book you can get into and out of in a few hours, but those hours will feel entirely worth it.
The book is set in Eternity, a location outside of time where time travel has been perfected. The men trained in the use of time travel are known as Eternals; they travel “upwhen” and “downwhen” in history, performing little changes that serve to better the human race. Eternals fall into different classes, there are “Computers” who calculate what changes should be made and “Observers” who amass data from different time periods. Andrew Harlan is a “Technician,” he is responsible for carrying out reality changes. Harlan travels to various points in time in “Kettles” and makes minute changes that will eventually prevent a war from being fought, or a plague from spreading, or a totalitarian government from rising. Harlan is doing good work, or so he thinks…
The remainder of the novel plays out like a thought exercise in the nature of time travel, and Asimov develops each theory like a professional. What results is a highly compelling look at the nature of time travel. Asimov breaks down a paradox. He analyzes what might happen if the human race were able to tweak perceived imperfections in humanity. He questions how much good would come of the cure for cancer being readily available throughout time. But The End of Eternity is not just scientific theorizing, it’s a love story, and it’s a cute one. You see, Eternals are supposed to be devoid of emotion, emotion would interfere with their judgement, it might cause them to hesitate or make a mistake. Another fun fact about Eternals…they have minimal exposure to women. Add Noÿes Lambent into the mix, a non-Eternal woman from a hedonistic society, and well, Harlan pretty much loses his mind over her. It’s cute, I promise.
In some ways The End of Eternity is just another exploration of the idea that man should not challenge fate. There are natural progressions in the world, and while they may cause momentary disturbances, they happen for a reason. Dinosaurs weren’t very happy about becoming extinct at the time, but they had to become extinct to make way for humanity. Who is to say that humanity as we know it is the last great evolutionary step. Perhaps one day, we will be the next generation’s dinosaurs. Who is man to decide if and when this will happen. It’s a scary thought in the moment, but it’s a beautiful thought when taken to its logical end. Maybe we need to stop meddling to make way for a brighter, stronger future. Asimov is fantastic, because above all else he makes the reader think; The End of Eternity is a powerful example of this talent.