It ended strong. I’m quite impressed with this novel. The manliness manliness of it was explained in context. I’m not sure that, if Eternity as described were actually possible, women would actually prove incapable of dealing with it. But I’m completely willing to accept that the organization and design of Eternity would make women unwelcome and unlikely to succeed. I’m particularly willing to accept this within the realm of this novel, since Noÿs is shown to be more than she seems.
In any case, plot summaries abound for the book. I’ve already written about how the characters are nicely rounded, and the plot is compelling, so I’m not going to dwell too much on how good a book it is. I do want to talk about the time travel element of it a bit, though.
One of the central elements of the way Eternity works in this book is that the people in it have taken it upon themselves to make things better throughout human history. Or at least the parts of it Eternity can reach. (Eternity is more of a brand name or a realm outside of ordinary space/time, and it touches on human history from the 27th Century on to the end of the solar system. It gets its power from when our sun goes nova.) Ordinary space/time is called Reality, and the people in Eternity meddle in Reality in order to maximize human well-being.
Finally, the people in Eternity are just people. They’re ordinary humans identified in Reality, and recruited into Eternity to do the work of keeping things improving. They age and die, they have flaws and egos, and all the normal things you would expect of a nearly all-male cadre of engineers, academics, and janitors.
There’s a problem, however, with the system. Two big ones anyway. The first is when they meddle, no matter how significant the change they’re working toward, things have a way of settling back into the previous pattern. An example I just made up. Suppose they determine that in the 3,000th Century a terrible war is going to wipe out half the human population, but that by making a change in the 2,900th Century it can be avoided. They make the change, and the war in the 3,000th doesn’t happen, but by about the middle of the 3,250 Century, there’s no change in circumstances from the previous condition.
The other problem is there’s a range of centuries in the far-far future the 100,000th century to much, much later that the Eternals cannot get to. They can go past them and see that there are no humans left. So the Eternals are unsure what this means. There are humans around right up to the point where they’re locked out of Reality, and no humans around once they can get back into it.
As a reader I found both of these ideas really interesting. Firstly, the idea of the inertia of history neatly gets around the paradoxes of time travel. The technology of Eternity protects Eternals from being affected by the changes. Also, this means that Eternity is populated entirely by people who can’t go home any more because, due to the constant meddling by the Eternals, their homes simply aren’t there any more. Things have changed since they’ve been gone, and it’s entirely likely that they were never born in the new Reality, or if they were, that they are virtually unrecognizable. Asimov also gives some thought to the emotional burden of this kind of life. I also found it interesting because Doctor Who recently used the phrase “wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey stuff,” which is very much like what Asimov seemed to be describing, and which so many of the Star Trek fans whose musing prompted this blog in the first place don’t seem comfortable with. (Edit: this first appeared in my now-defunct blog Interstellar Gas.)
The second thing about all this I found interesting as a reader is that the Eternals were locked out by Somebody. Discovering who the Somebody is, why they set the lock, and what their relationship with Eternity actually is turns out to be the central mystery of the novel, though Asimov disguises this very well until nearly the end of the book. It also has interesting implications for time travel stories. But Asimov doesn’t flesh that part out in much detail because, I suspect, it would get in the way of the story, and because maybe he simply didn’t work it out for himself. I’m not going to speculate too much about it here, but I think the idea of two sets of time-traveling peoples, with different technologies, different goals, and different perspectives on the best outcomes for humanity is really interesting.
Also, along the way, Asimov touches on the Galactic Empire, which I didn’t especially need as a reader, except to the degree that he does mention something I wondered about, but didn’t mention when writing about it, when I read the other two books. Namely, where are the space aliens in Asimov’s books?