I’ve read a lot of Asimov over the past year. He’s not the greatest of writers, if we’re talking about art and style, but Asimov excels at making a book about philosophy into a simple story that stands on its own merits.
Thus Asimov hashes out his favorite themes of the role of individuals opposed to massive probabilities in the course of history, the place of science as an arbiter of truth in society and the balance of freedom versus safety in the End of Eternity.
The back of the cover level spoiler version is that a future society goes all on time travel. There’s a group of elites that manages the flow of human history from their vantage point outside of time, making small adjustments to the timeline that bring about the greatest good for humanity as an aggregate. It’s the stuff of utopia: no more wars, famines and outbreaks.
The book deals with the philosophy and morality of this without being preachy or direct about it. If this is the sort of thing you like, I recommend reading it. For me it ties with the Gods Themselves as my favorite Asimov novel — better than the Foundation series, especially the later novels.
Some quotes that I appreciated:
Yet there was this to be said for unfavorable relationships in the wealth-distribution equation. It meant the existence of a leisure class and the development of an attractive way of life which, at its best, encouraged culture and grace. As long as the other end of the scale was not too badly off, as long as the leisure classes did not entirely forget their responsibilities while enjoying their privileges, as long as their culture took no obviously unhealthy turn, there was always the tendency in Eternity to forgive the departure from the ideal wealth-distribution pattern and to search for other, less attractive maladjustments. (page 54)
This was more tangential, but it shows the mindset of the Eternals as the judges of what’s good or bad for humanity. It’s interesting to consider that this was written in the 1950s, when there was still a strong social sense that the leisure class, a nice euphemism for the wealthy, had an obligation to society. Inequality was fine, even inevitable, as long as this wasn’t forgotten.
Now that meritocracy is all the buzz, the wealthy deserve their treasures and have no obligation to the rest of society because they’ve earned their wealth. Meritocracy is a deep rabbit hole; it’s interesting Asimov touched on it before this was even a widely discussed concept.
Maintenance was the foundation of Eternity. Strange that such an obvious fact had not struck him earlier. They supervised the importation of food and water from Time, the disposal of waste, the functioning of the power plants. They kept all the machinery of Eternity running smoothly. If every Specialist were to die of a stroke on the spot, Maintenance could keep Eternity going indefinitely. Yet were Maintenance to disappear, the Specialists would have to abandon Eternity in days or die miserably. (Page 188)
Most sci-fi and space operas simply ignore maintenance. Nice to see a slight nod to maintenance.
The last quote is a long slog but worth repeating in full as it captures the entire point of the novel:
“They didn’t just die out. It took thousands of Centuries. There were ups and downs but, on the whole, there was a loss of purpose, a sense of futility, a feeling of hopelessness that could not be overcome. Eventually there was one last decline of the birth rate and finally, extinction. Your Eternity did that.”
Harlan could defend Eternity now, the more intensely and extravagantly for having so shortly before attacked it so keenly. He said, “Let us at the Hidden Centuries and we will correct that. We have not failed yet to achieve the greatest good in those Centuries we could reach.”
“The greatest good?” asked Noÿs in a detached tone that seemed to make a mockery of the phrase. “What is that? Your machines tell you. Your Computaplexes. But who adjusts the machines and tells them what to weigh in the balance? The machines do not solve problems with greater insight than men do, only faster. Only faster! Then what is it the Eternals consider good? I’ll tell you. Safety and security. Moderation. Nothing in excess. No risks without overwhelming certainty of an adequate return.”
Harlan swallowed. With sudden force he remembered Twissell’s words in the kettle while talking about the evolved men of the Hidden Centuries. He said: “We bred out the unusual.”
And wasn’t it so?
“Well,” said Noÿs, “you seem to be thinking. Think of this, then. In the Reality that now exists, why is it that man is continually attempting space travel and continually failing? Surely each space-travel era must know of previous failures. Why try again, then?”
Harlan said. “I haven’t studied the matter.” But he thought uneasily of the colonies on Mars, established again and again, always failing. He thought of the odd attraction that spaceflight always had, even for Eternals. He could hear Sociologist Kantor Voy of the 2456th, sighing at the loss of electrogravitic spaceflight in one Century, and saying longingly: “If had been very beautiful.” And Life Plotter Neron Feruque, who had sworn bitterly at its passing and had launched into a fit of railing at Eternity’s handling of anticancer serums to ease his spirit.
Was there such a thing as an instinctive yearning on the part of intelligent beings to expand outward, to reach the stars, to leave the prison of gravity behind? Was it that which forced man to develop interplanetary travel dozens of times, forced him to travel over and over again to the dead worlds of a solar system in which only Earth was livable? Was it the eventual failure, the knowledge that one must return to the home prison, that brought about the maladjustments that Eternity was forever fighting? Harlan thought of the drug addiction in those same futile Centuries of the electrogravitics.
Noys said, “In ironing out the disasters of Reality, Eternity rules out the triumphs as well. It is in meeting the great tests that mankind can most successfully rise to great heights. Out of danger and restless insecurity comes the force that pushes mankind to newer and loftier conquests. Can you understand that? Can you understand that in averting the pitfalls and miseries that beset man, Eternity prevents men from finding their own bitter and better solutions, the real solutions that come from conquering difficulty, not avoiding it?”
Harlan began woodenly, “The greatest good of the greatest number—”
Noÿs cut in. “Suppose Eternity had never been established?”
“I’ll tell you what would have happened. The energies that went into temporal engineering would have gone into nucleonics instead. Eternity would not have come but the interstellar drive would. Man would have reached the stars more than a hundred thousand Centuries before he did in this current Reality. The stars would then have been untenanted and mankind would have established itself throughout the Galaxy. We would have been first.”
“And what would have been gained?” asked Harlan doggedly. “Would we be happier?”
“Whom do you mean by ‘we’? Man would not be a world but a million worlds, a billion worlds. We would have the infinite in our grasp. Each world would have its own stretch of the Centuries, each its own values, a chance to seek happiness after ways of is own in an environment of its own. There are many happinesses, many goods, infinite variety… That is the Basic State of mankind.” (Pages 214–216)
We live in Fukuyama’s world of post history, and the every encroaching nanny state in Western democracies has a paternalism that’s not entirely unlike that of Asimov’s Eternals. How many business weren’t started, backpacking journeys not taken, books not written and discoveries not made over the past two years in the name of safety and stability? Safety and security have their tradeoffs. What worries me is there’s little open discussion of those tradeoffs.