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Isaac Asimov, Time Travel and 'The End of Eternity'

Portrait of author Isaac Asimov taken in 1978 at an unknown location. (Anonymous/ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Portrait of author Isaac Asimov taken in 1978 at an unknown location. (Anonymous/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Science-fiction godfather Isaac Asimov published his classic time-travel novel The End of Eternity in 1955, and in a way, it's become lost in time itself over the years. Overshadowed by Asimov's famous Foundation and Robot series, The End of Eternity is mostly unknown to casual science-fiction fans. Yet serious devotees of Asimov's work consider it to be his single greatest novel.

The End of Eternity has been out of print and hard to find for a while, but that's been happily remedied with Tor Books' recent hardcover reissue and even more recent move to the various e-book formats.

The complicated plot of the book goes something like this: Our hero, Andrew Harlan, is an Eternal — a scientist operating from a tract of cosmic real estate known as Eternity. Eternity is a sort of bubble that exists outside of time and space. Or, in the metaphorical approach of the book, it's like an extratemporal elevator shaft running parallel to forward-moving Time.

Eternals can move up and down this shaft — "upwhen" and "downwhen" — getting off at stations in any century to enact Reality Changes. These changes alter the flow of human events toward outcomes producing "the maximum good for the maximum number."

As a going concern, though, Eternity has an HR problem. Despite their names, Eternals are mere humans, subject to aging in "physiotime." They age and die just like anyone else. They make mistakes. And fall in love.

Disclosing too much after this would spoil things, as much of the pleasure of Eternity comes from its old-fashioned mystery plotting. This might not be what you'd expect from Asimov, but the author actually wrote several mysteries and was a member of the prestigious Sherlock Holmes appreciation society, "The Baker Street Irregulars."

What would actually happen, the book asks, if an eternal guardian entity were forever shielding us from our own mistakes?

Still, it's safe to disclose a few story specifics. In the course of his work, Harlan falls in love with the fetching Noÿs Lambent, a beautiful aristocrat with her umlauts in all right places (writing about women was never Asimov's strong suit). Noÿs is from a century scheduled to undergo a Reality Change, which presents a dilemma for Harlan. If he effects the change, Noÿs may disappear entirely from the new Reality, or be replaced with an inferior analogue.

Eternity trades heavily in the proposal and resolution of quite a few time-travel paradoxes. This is a staple of science fiction, but here Asimov handles it with remarkable clarity. The book casually shuffles in mind-bending concepts from quantum physics and actually makes them work within the narrative, weaving in concepts like causality violations and infinite parallel universes.

Asimov never actually renders these things understandable — that would take several decades and a few doctoral programs. But he makes them appear understandable, at least until the end of the chapter. And that's the real trick, isn't it? The book employs time-travel elements to do what all good science fiction does — extrapolate scientific and social issues to various event horizons of the future.

Isaac Asimov was born in Belarus in 1920 and moved to Brooklyn with his family at the age of 3. He worked as a professor of biochemistry at Boston University and won numerous science-fiction awards for his writing. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Eternity's essential mission statement, after all, would have to be read as social engineering writ insanely large. What would actually happen, the book asks, if an eternal guardian entity were forever shielding us from our own mistakes?

It doesn't take too much lateral thinking to transpose Asimov's hard sci-fi musings into theological notions of destiny and free will. Or, going in the other direction, to matters of evolution and natural selection. If you remove adverse environmental conditions, would man keep evolving at all?

This is part of Asimov's particular genius. He is a master prestidigitator of notional misdirection. He keeps you so dazzled with the sci-fi flourishes — Temporal loops! Neuronic whips! — that you don't notice the bigger cosmic tricks he's producing from his other sleeve. It's a maneuver he uses time and time again in the Foundation and Robot books.

Eternity also works as a futuristic thriller and is particularly effective as a straight-up mystery novel. The last 30 pages of the book move with terrific velocity through a series of startling revelations. Asimov snaps together a dozen story elements cleverly obscured throughout the other chapters. Clearly, this is where Asimov's Sherlock habit pays off.

Glenn McDonald is an arts writer and movie critic with the Raleigh News & Observer and editor of NPR's Wait, Wait ... Don't Tell Me Daily News Quiz.

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