After my review of Looper, I had a hankering for other time travel narratives, so I picked up one of the most iconic: Isaac Asimov’s The End of Eternity. First published in 1955, the book offers that now much-sought-after literary element, coherent world-building around its central conceits, as backdrop to the fast-paced story of Technician Andrew Harlan, an intelligent but disaffected member of a reality-altering organization called Eternity.
Asimov’s great time-travelling narrative is also, in one of the sweetest ironies made possible by the ideological constraints of any given generation, extremely dated. A bit of description early in this text makes that fact all too clear:
In his fifth year as Observer [Harlan] was given a Senior’s rating in the field and assigned to the 482nd [century]. For the first time he would be working unsupervised, and knowledge of that fact robbed him of some of his self-assurance when he first reported to the Computer in charge of the Section.
That was Assistant Computer Hobbe Finge, whose pursed, suspicious mouth and frowning eyes seemed ludicrous in such a face as his. He had a round button of a nose, two larger buttons of cheeks. He needed only a touch of red and a fringe of white hair to be converted into the picture of the Primitive myth of St. Nicholas.
(–or Santa Claus or Kriss Kringle. Harlan knew all three names. He doubted if one Eternal out of a hundred thousand had heard of any one of them. Harlan took a secret, shamefaced pride in this sort of arcane knowledge. From his earliest days in school he had ridden the hobbyhorse of Primitive history, and Educator Yarrow had encouraged it. Harlan had grown actually fond of those odd, perverted Centuries that lay, not only before the beginning of Eternity in the 27th, but even before the invention of the Temporal Field itself, in the 24th. He had used old books and periodicals in his studies. He had even traveled far downwhen to the earliest Centuries of Eternity, when he could get permission, to consult better sources. For over fifteen years he had managed to collect a remarkable library of his own, almost all in print-on-paper. There was a volume by a man called H. G. Wells, another by a man named W. Shakespeare, some tattered histories. Best of all there was a complete set of bound volumes of a Primitive news weekly that took up inordinate space but that he could not, out of sentiment, bear to reduce to micro-film. (p. 24)
There is such a merry interplay of expansive and myopic visions in these paragraphs that it’s hard to know just where to begin–but that last word is as good as any. Though Asimov is quite savvy in his gentle subversion of the term “Computer”, this novel routinely describes information storage devices used by the Eternals (who span about 70,000 years of human history) that are bulky and low-capacity even just in contrast to what we have fifty years later.
Nor does Asimov’s description allow for other technological progress we have made with information storage in those same fifty years, to say nothing of the centuries directly to follow. Rather, according to this narrative, it will be print, not e-books, and not some future extension of current work in bioinformatics or quantum computing, that survives seven whole centuries to land on shelves accessible to members of Eternity.
Thus, the content of these surviving texts should also come as little surprise. Far from conveying the bruisingly haphazard cultural valuations of a far-flung century, these paragraphs contain blatant appeals to the ego of the mid-20th century reader, who will no doubt be pleased to find that what his generation considers some of the highest literature–Wells and Shakespeare alike–will maintain that cultural dominance right through to at least the 27th century (the lowest time period to which Harlan is allowed direct access).
Indeed, according to Asimov’s account, these two great Western writers will neither be joined by new classic authors in the seven-hundred-year interim before Harlan finds such archives, nor haphazardly trumped by other old texts–all of Shakespeare irrevocably lost in the 25th century, for instance, but an edition of Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s Paul Clifford (1830) preserved by chance and so (frightfully) acclaimed in Shakespeare’s place.
Yes, the above excerpt refers to the era of Asimov’s writing as part of Primitive history–but what a Primitive history! When a man who can explore 700 centuries with the greatest of ease finds that particular, pre-Eternity era almost sacred, what else is a 1950s reader to do but feel assured that he is truly living at the zenith of literary culture?
Nor does this self-satisfaction end with artistic supremacy, for there is another, equally important way in which this time travel narrative proves dated: specifically, as a female, I am quite clearly not its primary audience. Indeed, one might well argue that the central crisis of this text is fashioned directly out of female exclusion; if women were permitted more often to join Eternity, Andrew Harlan might not have waited until the age of 32 for his first major encounter (let alone liaison) with one, and as such not acted like a sulky, petulant, temper-tantrum-throwing fifteen-year-old in the throes of his first love.
I wish I were exaggerating, too, but this is far from the first acclaimed text I have read that makes it very hard to be a female reader, and so one comes upon reading strategies to negotiate excessive reminders that Time-Travelling to All but the Most Recent Past Would Probably Really Suck for Most Women. (Most every other page in The Last Temptation of Christ, for instance, reminds readers that women are intrinsically degenerate creations, ever seeking to distract man from his pursuit of spiritual purity. One makes a habit of repeating to oneself “different time, different place, different culture” to temper the mounting rage, but it is exhausting. Don’t even get me started on Nietzsche.)
With The End of Eternity, my reading strategy involved trying to ascertain how many of these views about women in the text are Harlan’s, how many Asimov’s, and how many both. Asimov, for instance, has a sketchy explanation for how few women are present in Eternity (apparently women are a hundred times more likely to alter the timeline if removed) but this neither accounts for the fact that plenty of women die too young to reproduce (so nipping one out of Time just before death wouldn’t impact a damn thing), nor for the fact that women who do manage to get into Eternity are all there to do little more than cook, clean, or provide secretary+ services to their male superiors.
(It should also be rather self-evident that, despite the marked absence of women in Eternity, of homosexuality there is nary a mention!)
In this heteronormative gentlemen’s retreat of a Reality-Changing time-travel organization active across 700 centuries, the traditional mores of Harlan’s birthwhen therefore find little challenge. When chapter one closes with a segment noting, “If there was a flaw in Eternity, it involved women,” there can be little doubt the ensuing description of how love of a woman brings about the downfall of all Man’s best-laid plans is meant to stir up many an empathetic sigh or chuckle among Asimov’s first, 1950s-era male readers. Similarly, when chapter two details Harlan’s troubles with a century that is “more than a little matriarchal,” it is difficult to tell who is chiefly horrified by the thought of such a world–Harlan or Asimov:
If his disturbing presence could only be made disturbing enough at some key point, a different branch of possibility would become real, a branch in which millions of pleasure-seeking women would find themselves transformed into true, pure-hearted mothers. They would be in another Reality with all the memories that belonged with it, unable to tell, dream, or fancy that they had ever been anything else.
Unfortunately, to do that, he would have to step outside the bounds of the spatio-temporal chart and that was unthinkable.
Is this free-indirect discourse all wrought from Harlan’s head? Does the narrator sympathize in the slightest with these thoughts? Does that same narrator appeal in these lines to a similarly anticipated sympathetic response among his male readers? It is difficult to tell. Citing Wells and Shakespeare already suggests an immense amount of flattery for 1950s values on Asimov’s part, but not all characters in this novel have quite the same rigid valuation of womankind as our dear, sexually-frustrated protagonist.
Suffice it to say, though: such a clever time travel tale as The End of Eternity would not hinge upon the same, gendered conceits if written today.
The same might not be said, however, about the novel’s dated sentimentality in general. Indeed, I think it rather self-evident that sentimentality maintains a very strong tradition in contemporary science fiction–with readers routinely reassured for holding certain nostalgic views about the ways of the world, and for fantasizing futures that find themselves coming full circle from degradation and dystopia to reclaim the values we currently hold dear.
Before going any further, I want to stress that I neither think the fact of sentimentality in contemporary science fiction, nor the peril of a text becoming “dated” because of this sentimentality, makes such works inherently inferior or “wrong.” Did William Gibson not aptly observe that science fiction is always about the present anyway? Shouldn’t we then expect preservation of the present as at least one major argument put forth by the genre?
So when I hold up a story like Ken Liu’s “Summer Reading” (Daily Science Fiction, September 2012) as a perfect example of Asimov’s affect of sentimentality continuing into the present, I do not do so to deride Liu’s text. His is, however, undeniably a safe theme to write upon, because the story takes a position today’s readers will naturally incline themselves towards (their romantic attachment to print books), and the narrator emphatically reassures these readers that the rightness of this world view will inevitably win out (even among non-human, ostensibly robotic entities) in small, tender ways, though all else may be lost. A few choice excerpts to this end:
On the tenth floor of the Library is a tiny room about ten meters square.
CN-344315′s joy was to enter this room at the end of a day. He would survey his collection, nestled on the shelves like rows of sleeping babies. He would extend a probe from his chassis through a slot in the airtight glass panes covering the shelves, so that the chemical detectors on the probe could process the fragrance of ancient paper and ink. The resulting electric patterns in his brain were pleasurable. Then, he would relax his motors and actuators, his pincers and wheels, and be as still as a piece of furniture.
Though the books were so much trouble to keep alive, to maintain against decay, this only made him care more for them. In this, CN-344315 was simply learning the lesson that every parent knew: it is the effort given to protect and nourish the helpless that binds you to them with love, tighter and tighter. Each time that he had to rush to reinforce the small room against an oncoming storm, each time he had to labor to eliminate a fungal or entomological threat, each time he sat, patiently, and examined each page of a hundred books for signs of damage–he came to love them more.
For ten minutes, they were not sitting in a decaying library on an ancient, forgotten planet. For ten minutes, they were in a place, at a time, where talking tortoises and caterpillars who tossed salads made sense. For ten minutes, they were not an old robot and a young girl, but readers, communing with an author across an ocean of one hundred thousand years.
An entire world rose, grew, and blossomed around them as they read.
CN-344315 knew that the book would not last. The child’s hands were rough. She might leave it out in the rain, might spill juice on it, might tear its ancient pages out of carelessness. She might tire of the book and lose it like a cheap toy.
Yet CN-344315 had no regrets as he handed the book to Erin. The Council was right about one thing: books are only alive when they’re read. For books are seeds, and they grow in minds.
One thing I most enjoy about identifying trends in literature past and present is being able to identify how other writers affect certain moods and beats to those ends, and then by comparison gaining a better understanding of why those trends do not work for me, either as writer or as reader.
As a reader, for instance, I do not want to feel safe and settled in new worlds. I want to read texts that challenge all my deepest preconceptions (even if this does mean gnashing my teeth sometimes through works assuring me that females are the bane of all existence), and so I want to write such estranging texts, too. I have quite a few such texts in slush piles at present (some happily having risen to final rounds again–fingers crossed!), but the real fascination is always with my works-in-progress–and right now I’m working on a couple that are challenging me something fierce.
One is a project I’m not going to discuss until it is much further along–though it does keep me awake some nights, fretting about whether or not the concept will ever find a publisher if/when it’s even completed–but the other is a short story that forwards a difficult counterpoint to a thoroughly entrenched cultural given. And I feel just as torn about how to manage the narrator/character divide as a writer, as I found myself torn when trying to parse the difference between Asimov, Asimov’s narrator, and Harlan in The End of Eternity. I feel even more conflicted when I then try to put myself in another reader’s shoes.
One benefit of (good) sentimental writing is that it often does not appear didactic (even if it definitely is) simply because the views it forwards in this fashion are treated as intuitive–a series of welcome riffs on ancient wisdom, over which the reader’s eyes easily glide. But the opposing thematic vein runs a different risk, of being read as controversial for controversy’s sake alone, at the very least because it stands out as nonconforming in the first place. (And at most, because it is genuinely bad writing.)
“Gently,” I keep reminding myself as I write this story in particular: “Light touches, always lighter than you think.” And so it is slow, careful going. And so it may well not work out, for all my best efforts to the contrary. As Kingsley Amis writes in Lucky Jim, “If you can’t annoy somebody, there is little point in writing.” And I think I like that sentiment. I like that sentiment a lot. The trick is, can I effectively put it into practice?
Time will tell, as I seem to have grown increasingly fond of saying. But so too might my own attempt at a time travel narrative, at some daunting point down the road. Until then, there is something most assuredly to be said about treating every speculative fiction story as its own time travel vehicle in a way: the trick being to take the reader for a temporal spin somewhere startling and strange, then neither stranding them there indefinitely nor allowing them to return, well, entirely unchanged.