I like to think of successful science fiction as a house of mirrors, in which features of humanity’s story are exaggerated and examined. The best stories ask “what if?” in order to make a statement about what is.
Isaac Asimov’s The End of Eternity chronicles an eponymous, time-traveling organization as it molds millennia of human history. After the invention of time travel in the 24th century, a collection of bureaucrats and engineers build offices outside the bounds of normal Time, with a capital ‘T’. Eternity presents itself to humanity as an inter-century trade organization. They solve resource crises. This is in an imagined future where humanity reaches a stable state in the coming centuries. The years bring on changes that are more cultural than technological.
We see Eternity from the perspective of Andrew Harlan, a Technician responsible for enacting changes to better humanity. From his narrative, we see that the true purpose of Eternity is making Minimum Necessary Changes (MNCs) to alter the course of human history. Computers in Eternity, both in the electronic and occupational sense, study something akin to the Foundation series’ psychohistory. They observe, predict, and enact changes to “improve” humanity. In the opening scene, Harlan slips into a cargo ship in Time to move a box. Eternity’s predictions show that this MNC averts a chain of events that would otherwise lead to a war.
Reality, with a capital ‘R’, is a single branch. The Eternals view Time as a linear path that they can nudge in different directions. Any change almost immediately echoes upwhen, replacing previous history with the “better” version.
Harlan, like Eternity, is imperfect. Unlike the myths of immortal, god-like Eternals that circulate in Time, Eternity is a fraternity of normal men. They are plucked from families in Time at young ages to undergo a military-like training and selection process. Their histories are then erased from Reality.
The fallibility and bias of the Eternals is apparent in every MNC as their sense of morality impinges on Reality. Towards the end of the story, we learn of their plans to remove a culture of hairless men from Reality simply because they view them as abnormal. Yet, it’s hard not to feel for Eternity as Harlan embarks on a quest to destroy it in a love-stricken mania to protect a woman in Time, Noÿs, who will disappear from Reality in a coming MNC.
Harlan faces paradoxes, espionage, and intrigue as he peels through the millennia to alter the origin and fate of Eternity to protect the woman he loves. It’s hardly a love story though - it’s a fun romp through the philosophical and technical implications inherent to a group of nearly omniscient guardians of humanity. I finished the novel on a flight home from a trip. I just sat there with goosebumps, staring at the back of the seat in front of me with my mind blown.
If you’ve read this far and haven’t read the book, don’t worry. I haven’t revealed any major plot points. In fact, my copy of the book spoils a lot more than what I’ve just told you on the back cover. So don’t read it!
But from here on out: SPOILERS!
Evil has a purpose. I am a tree-hugging hippy who wants the world to live in harmony, but even still I cannot help but acknowledge the role of evil in advancing human history. The Apollo program would not have existed if not for the design and production of rockets that killed thousands (or millions?) in WWII. Maybe our first steps on the Moon could have happened some other way. Maybe the death of millions didn’t need to precede the realization of the dream of lunar exploration. But it did. I like to think of this phenomenon with a Harvey Dent philosophy: it’s always darkest before the dawn. Struggles and upheaval from a few evil people bring out the good in many more in opposition. It’s one way to give meaning to the pain and suffering from living in an uncaring universe where bad things happen.
Ostensibly a tale about time-travel and paradoxes, The End of Eternity culminates with the answer to a different “what if?” question: what if evil does not exist? This is the subtext throughout Harlan’s Eternity. Eternity’s changes reduce humanity’s story to a harmonious, muddling banality. War is removed, but so is spaceflight. Every attempt at building an interplanetary civilization fizzles out. We learn that Harlan’s first MNC in the story, performed to avert a war, ripples through the millennia to eventually turn a bustling spaceport into rusting graveyard. It’s a side-effect that the Eternals were aware of and deemed acceptable.
The ultimate conclusion of humanity’s normalization is a civilization that dies. Struggle and strife never spur innovation. Humanity putters along through thousands of millennia. We eventually reach the stars, but we learn that we were too late. Other species had colonized the galaxy, keeping us locked into our single solar system. With nowhere to expand, we sputter and disintegrate.
Without Eternity’s meddling, we learn from Noÿs, the culmination of our pain and suffering would be Infinity, an interstellar civilization with infinite possibilities. “This is Earth,” says Noÿs, ”[n]ot the eternal and only home of mankind, but only a starting point of an infinite adventure.”
In the real, modern world, we’re facing existential crises. The Anthropocene has arrived with historical highs in standards of living across the globe, but it threatens us on an unimaginable scale. Climate change has already begun its exponential destruction of the home we’ve known since the first people walked the Earth. In politics we’re witnessing the rebirth of fascism, as if people have forgotten that xenophobia is a self-defeating philosophy. Poor educational standards are creating a populace that lacks the basic skills to sustain a democracy.
Yet, I have hope.
Each of these threats to our civilization is an opportunity to come together and overcome. Climate change gives scientists and engineers a reason to make monumental technological leaps. Political strife engenders large-scale activism. Unbridled connectivity is an opportunity to evolve improving educational standards across the globe.
We just need to collectively put our heads together and do what humanity does best: learn, communicate, and overcome. It’s how we became the dominant species on this planet and it’s how we’ll ensure our survival across time and space. The philosophy of The End of Eternity would argue that new threats to our survival are the necessary fuel to reach Noÿs’ Infinity. I agree. I, for one, am here to write the next page in our infinite story.