The End of Eternity (1955)
Isaac Asimov (writer).
Read in 2017.
I was sceptical at first. Asimov was laying on the usual ploys of suspense too thickly. The ontological gambit of positioning Cooper as Mallansohn was immediately obvious to me from the foreshadowing discussion of his facial hair. The stated premise that changes, even big ones, have gradually smaller effects over time is so implausible that it nullifies much of the fun that could be had with an extratemporal corps of social engineers, though I did enjoy imagining the Allwhen Council as the Council of Ricks. The near-total lack of philosophical interest in this corps fortunately turns out to be a plot point in the final twist, which is a good one. I expected the Eternals to be manipulated by a more deeply nested Eternity, and I was wrong, sort of. The end result at once relocates the reader in relation to the narrative and replaces the dystopian corps with an equally scary-sounding human “empire” (queue the Foundation series) that crowds out its competition. That’s a job well done of burning the motherhood statement. It’s almost nihilistic, with the Samson-inspired hero/antihero fuming and pouting throughout.
The treatment of computers, which Asimov here calls “computerplexes” since he is still using the term “computers” for people, is prescient for the time. On the other hand, the final twist doesn’t drive home the obvious feminist objection to all-male Eternity, beyond Noÿs’s role. It’s doubly Platonic: a Republic-inspired society of noble liars with a clear emotion-reason dichotomy. It seems tremendously unlikely that so many human cultures would be happy to trade with each other through a near-omnipotent, politically opaque, ostensibly unemotional bureaucracy that treats its “liaisons” so poorly and squanders female talent. If reproduction is a concern, just sterilize everybody. That would have prevented Twissell’s problem too.
Like the absence of chaos theory, the gender aspect is antiquated beyond basic credibility. I like the names though: Laban Twissell, Noÿs Lambent and Hobbe Finge, supposed to represent a wide, albeit manipulated variety of human cultures, and doing an amusingly poor job of it. I can accept that Eternity kept real cultural variation limited, but each century is too homogeneous and environmental aspects go almost unmentioned.