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Summer 2010

Unearthly Powers

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Wendy Lesser

The End of Eternity
by Isaac Asimov.
Tor/Tom Doherty Associates, 2010,
$24.99 cloth.

The world we inhabit is one in which weekly newsmagazines, printed on paper in columns of type, are considered primitive and profoundly obsolescent; in which an entire bookshelf of bound volumes can be stored in a gadget the size of a fingertip; in which a mechanical device that is only about four inches long and a fraction of an inch thick can record whatever we like, play it back to us through a tiny earpiece, and rest comfortably in a pocket when not in use; in which space flight has been invented but is rarely used by humans, who have lost interest in it after the initial decades of excitement; in which hand-held or easily portable computers are a commonplace item; in which literature can hardly be distinguished from film in the public mind; and in which some members of society long fruitlessly for a past era when all such developments were unknown and almost inconceivable.

We do, in fact, live in such a world, but I mean something else. The above description, detail by detail, exactly characterizes the world of Isaac Asimov’s The End of Eternity, a science-fiction novel set mainly in the 482nd, 575th, and 2456th centuries. What is remarkable is that Asimov’s book first appeared in print in 1955.

For those of you who were not around then (and I barely was—I was three at the time), let me assure you that none of the present-day realities mentioned in my first paragraph was even a mote in a scientist’s eye. In 1955, the year my family moved to Palo Alto, my father had just started working for IBM, where he helped develop the huge mainframe computer that would eventually become the great-great-great-grandfather of Macs and PCs alike. By 1966 or 1967, when I began reading Isaac Asimov novels, a version of that mainframe had recently become available for use in a few high-school computing classes, so that some of us in the Palo Alto school system were taught how to inscribe the punch-cards that fed into the mechanical maw—a process so inhuman and alienating and difficult, so resolutely digital in its outlook, that I was determined never to have anything to do with computers again. This resolve disintegrated in about 1983, when I purchased my first “personal computer,” a boxy Kaypro whose 64-kilobyte RAM was laughably minute by today’s standards, but whose CPU was nonetheless more powerful (or so the salesman told me) than the massive computer that first flew a man to the moon in 1969.

And this is not to speak of laptops, cell phones, flashdrives, iPods, DVDs, Kindles, and all the other devices which only came into widespread use in the last decade or two. Asimov thought all this would take many centuries; instead, it took less than two generations. Yet if he was wrong about the timing, he was fantastically right about not only the inventions themselves, but the effect they would have on society.

Part of the pleasure of reading old science fiction is precisely this: with the special powers vested in you by historical hindsight, you can compare the playfully visionary forecasts with what actually took place. This puts you rather in the position of Asimov’s “Eternals,” the characters in The End of Eternity who stand outside of time, observing and controlling the vast majority who still live within it. The Eternals, contrary to what their name suggests, do not live forever; they age and die just as normal people do. But they have such extensive powers of technical analysis (their highest-ranked functionaries are called Computers, who are superior to Sociologists, who are above Technicians) that they are capable of predicting what will happen to any individual human or group of humans. And because they also have at their beck-and-call an easy form of time travel—consisting of “kettles” that whizz along preset pathways in the fourth dimension, taking them many centuries “upwhen” or “downwhen”—they can actually enter into history at specific points in time and repeatedly change it. These so-called Reality Changes might involve something as small as moving a container from one shelf to another, or as large as engineering the deaths of a dozen people in a crash. The aim is always to produce the Maximum Desired Response (M.D.R.) with the Minimum Necessary Change (M.N.C.): to insure, in short, that the unpleasant or anti-social or generally disruptive event does not occur, and thus to keep mankind in a state of comfortable if slightly dull equilibrium.

Though technology is what makes this kind of reality-control possible, only a human being is capable of finding exactly the right moment and method of change. “Mechanical computing would not do,” Asimov’s typically invisible, intangible narrator tells us. “The largest Computaplex ever built, manned by the cleverest and most experienced Senior Computer ever born, could do no better than to indicate the ranges in which the M.N.C. might be found. It was then the Technician, glancing over the data, who decided on an exact point in that range. A good Technician was rarely wrong. A top Technician was never wrong.” And then, in the kind of portentous single-sentence paragraph in which science fiction delights, Asimov adds: “Harlan was never wrong.”

Harlan is our hero, a man whose “homewhen,” or time of origin, is the 95th century, but who as a teenager was lifted out of Time to become one of the Eternals. (Forgive me—the capitals are all Asimov’s.) Like all Eternals, he can never go back to his own century, not only because the rules forbid it, but because if he went back he would, like Jimmy Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life, find everything horribly changed; he would learn that he had never had a home or a mother or an existence of any kind, because the ongoing series of Reality Changes (some, perhaps, implemented by himself) would have wiped him off the record. So instead he travels light, moving from one century to another, putting in the fix as needed, obeying his superiors, and only occasionally wondering why life is structured the way it is and whether Eternity really lasts forever. (Apparently it doesn’t: even the Eternals cannot get into the “hidden” centuries between the 70,000th and the 150,000th, and when they enter the system after that, all they find is a dead, uninhabited, featureless world.)

I won’t go any further into the plot of this novel. If you have never been a science-fiction fan, I will long since have lost you anyway. But if you ever were a fan—as I was, quite obsessively, in my teens—you cannot do better than to return to the works of Isaac Asimov. Cheesy as the love story inevitably is, and inconsistent as some of the time-related logic turns out to be (why, for instance, does Harlan have to cancel an appointment in the 575th century in order to go to the 3000th and see a man who is “free this afternoon,” when normal logic tells us he could have gone and returned in a matter of minutes, or even seconds?), the essential storyline has a deeply compelling quality that is—to me, at least—irresistible. As I approached the end of this novel, I found myself agitatedly turning pages in the way I always do in the last hundred pages of a Henry James novel (even, I’ll confess, a Henry James novel I have read before). And, as in a James novel, the propulsive force is a desire to find out how things turn out for these deeply knowing but finally helpless characters, who are up against moral dilemmas they can’t easily solve, and who are impeded in their attempted solutions by people who are socially and economically more powerful than they are.

The End of Eternity may be one of Asimov’s better novels, but it follows the same essential pattern as all his others, as I discovered when I went back recently to reread Foundation’s Edge and The Robots of Dawn. Like all obsessive writers, Isaac Asimov is a victim of the repetition compulsion, reproducing a single novel over and over again in all its myriad forms. His goes something like this: An individual with good powers of analysis and logic, as well as a great deal of modestly worn courage, confronts a gigantic system that is out to thwart him because he threatens, wittingly or unwittingly, to bring about its downfall. In the course of his efforts, he has to rely on other people without knowing for sure which ones are his friends or lovers and which his enemies or betrayers. He is good at crossing cultural boundaries and even interacting with other life forms (some of Asimov’s most touching relationships are those between human and robot), but he retains a stubborn, almost curmudgeonly affection for the values and sensations of his own home place. Generally this place is Earth, and even when it is not, he and his entire culture have a kind of residual nostalgia—though also a civilized man’s anti-primitive aversion, or an adult’s anti-infantile one—for that long-lost homeland, that long-gone birthplace of the human race.

One of the advantages of looking back on Asimov’s work from the remove of several decades, not to mention the turn of a century, is that one can see how deeply enmeshed he was in the history of his own time. He was the child of Russian emigrants who left the Soviet Union for America in 1923, just three years after their son Isaac was born; and one can, if one chooses, view his whole science-fiction oeuvre as a recapitulation of the Soviet experiment and the Cold War reaction to it. Yet these novels, although they wear their anti-totalitarian garb as prominently as Orwell’s ever did, are unlikely ever to be kidnapped by the right, for the simple reason that all the individualistic, novelty-mongering American virtues are countered in Asimov’s work—and sometimes outweighed—by their opposites: that is, a belief in collective effort, a passion for history, and an ineradicable pessimism about the prospects for human progress. For Asimov, super-civilization and technological achievement always go hand-in-hand with a general softening or attenuation of the human spirit, and it is only by getting back to basics (or intuition, or felt sensation) that people can continue to move ahead. It is an essentially nostalgic view, and as such it is profoundly Russian, however much Asimov may have felt himself to be a fully fledged citizen of his new country.

The author’s note attached to the 2010 reissue of The End of Eternity tells us that Isaac Asimov, in addition to writing vast quantities of science fiction, “taught biochemistry at Boston University School of Medicine and wrote detective stories and nonfiction books on Shakespeare, the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, biochemistry, and the environment. He died in 1992.” But if we go back a mere quarter of a century or so, to the 1984 Ballantine paperback of The Robots of Dawn, we can locate ourselves at a moment when the author himself (not to mention Ballantine Books) was still with us. In the author’s note to that book, we learn that “at the present time, he has published over 260 books, distributed through every major division of the Dewey system of library classification, and shows no signs of slowing up. He remains as youthful, as lively, and as lovable as ever, and grows more handsome with each year. You can be sure that this is so since he has written this little essay himself and his devotion to absolute objectivity is notorious.” If you are one of those people who, like myself, remains committed to the primitive, cellulose-based habits of reading, the pages on which you read this will be yellowed and flaking; but the voice will be as strong and as vitally alive as ever. Now, that’s what I call time travel.

Wendy Lesser, the founding editor of The Threepenny Review, is the author of eight books. Her ninth, a life of Dmitri Shostakovich as viewed through his string quartets, will be out from Yale in 2011.

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