Thursday, March 14, 2013

The End of Eternity: Starring Cary Grant and a Young Ingenue

My well-loved ancient copy.
In case it isn't obvious by my profile, I work at a technology company. My coworkers are, for the most part, nerdy men who only read science fiction and fantasy, if they read fiction at all.

I have no idea who you are reading this, but it is entirely possible that you aren't familiar with computer scientists and engineers. Computer scientists and engineers do not believe fiction is worth reading because it doesn't teach you anything the way non-fiction does. And by "non-fiction", they mean books like AntiPatterns, rather than books like Let's Pretend This Never Happened.

They will read science fiction and fantasy, though, because it's "entertaining". They don't care about stuff like character development, worldview, or empathy. They've said as much to me when I've argued that fiction is worth reading because it allows you to put yourself in another person's mind and experience life from a different point of view.

I don't particularly dig science fiction myself, though I've read quite a bit of it. My coworkers quizzed me one day about what I had and had not read, presumably to decide whether or not my opinion on the subject should be taken seriously (this is how it is with computer scientists and engineers, and most science-y people in general). Unsurprisingly, they had never heard of my two favourite science fiction novels: The Gods Themselves and The End of Eternity. 

Science fiction often suffers from the same ailments as your garden variety trash: a focus on events (or technology) rather than character development; an over-reliance on exposition fairies to provide backstory (or explain the tech); and a feeling that the ending was pre-determined and everything was shoehorned into the story.

The End of Eternity is by no means perfect. I mean the ending -- the destruction of Eternity -- was obviously the main goal of the novel, and all the loose ends got wrapped up with a heaping serving of deus ex machina, but at least the exposition fairies didn't get into the way too much.

The other nice thing about The End of Eternity is that even though it was published in 1955, it still somehow managed to be somewhat sexually progressive and -- almost -- feminist.

Granted, according to The End of Eternity we all have to wait til the 482nd century for humans to be as sexually liberated as your average Montrealer circa 1995, but that's still pretty impressive given most science fiction from the 1950s and 1960s assumed that women would be housewives for ever and ever and ever.

The basic plot of The End of Eternity is that there are these people -- all guys, natch -- living outside of time, who are in charge of making small changes to the world to prevent wars and famine and all kinds of other things. The thing is that all the changes they make result in space travel never being developed and humanity dying off instead of Spreading to the Stars. This is, apparently, a Bad Thing. Because it was the 1950s and the assumption was that human existence had to go on forever Humans are The Best!

All these small changes also result in people, places and families being radically changed, or even sometimes getting eliminated from reality altogether.

I know what you're thinking. You're thinking "but according to the many-worlds interpretation of QM, the realities where the changes were not made still exist!"

Thing is that Hugh Everett didn't postulate the many-worlds interpretation until 1957, two years after the publication of The End of Eternity. So it's interesting to see read a book that was written prior to that interpretation. Nowadays the many-worlds interpretation would be taken for granted, and probably our hero would "travel" to the other universe to be with the woman he loved, or some such nonsense.

Oh, right, that brings me to our hero, Andrew Harlan. Actually, he's less of a hero and more of a dupe. He's manipulated by prettymuch everyone for their own purposes. He goes along with all the duplicity because he wants to save the woman he loves, Noÿs Lambent, from a reality change that he has to make -- a change that will erase her from her reality's timeline.  He devises a plan to take her out of her reality and hide her in Eternity -- the place where the guys dissociated from time live -- until he can figure out a way for them to be together.

In the end, he decides that Eternity has to be destroyed. And at that moment every loose end ever is wrapped up by an Exposition Fairy who also sprinkles some deus ex machina powder all over the place.

So. I tried to convince my coworkers to read this book, but before I could explain why, they had started quizzing me about whether I liked The Lord of The Rings (I didn't).

But this is my blog and I can try convincing you: You should read this book. It's a bit over-explainy at times, but you can totally just skip over those parts; they're boring and they don't advance the plot. Plus once you skip over those parts you end up with a pretty decent story about a guy who doesn't like his job, finds some happiness in a girl, and decides to buck the system for love only to discover that he's been a pawn in a game.

The book is a product of its time and feels like an old black and white movie starring Cary Grant and some young ingenue. But unlike my coworkers, I like old movies starring Cary Grant and a young ingenue, and so do many other people.

1 comment:

  1. >many-worlds interpretation

    If you go back and look at the messy little droppings of the exposition fairies then you will see where Noÿs smugly says, "We smile at the ignorance of the Eternals who think there are many Realities but that only one exists at a time."

    >the destruction of Eternity -- was obviously the main goal of the novel

    Asimov began construction of the story by imagining the reason why a time traveler from the future would put a cryptic message about atomic energy in a magazine during the 1930s.

    >um...because Humans are The Best!

    In the 1940s Asimov was schooled in science fiction writing by John Campbell. Here is how Asimov described Campbell's view of aliens: "He did not like to see Earthmen lose out to aliens or to have Earthmen pictured as in anyway inferior."

    >Cary Grant and a Young Ingenue

    OK...who would be a good choice to play the role of Noÿs?