Amazon Prime recently added some “free” Audible content, and this is the second classic science fiction novel I’ve listened to from there, the first being Robert A. Heinlein’s “The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress.” It’s read by Paul Boehmer, an unabridged version, 8 hours and 11 minutes long. I listened to it periodically over the last month.
The first thing that I noticed was the contrast in writing style and approach to characters with the Heinlein. Asimov’s world, at least in this book (and others, from what I remember) is filled with scientists and other logical thinkers, and his characters seem cold, emotionless and generally less appealing than Heinlein’s. That does change some later in the book, and is even explained at the end, but while both writers are focused on big ideas, Heinlein doesn’t lose sight of human nature and his characters are more flawed but more appealing. His authorial voice is warmer, at times even funny. None of that in Asimov.
Andrew Harlan is an Eternal, part of a vast network of scientists, engineers and their support staff that exist in a place outside time. Time travel using time machines is discovered in our future and the Eternals set out to control events by making small changes to reality they believe will improve life in general and help mankind as a whole. The vast majority of people have no idea this is happening, and they can’t see the changes, only the Eternals can. Changes are carefully examined and debated, and some have only minor effects on the path of future history, while others are large: avoiding nuclear war, for instance. The downside is, some lives are greatly changed or removed from reality completely.
Harlan is a proficient Eternal agent, but a new assignment partners him with a beautiful and charming non-Eternal woman, Noys, who he falls in love with. Breaking Eternal rules, Harlan discovers the change he is assigned to make in her time will remove Noys from history completely. Unable to let that happen, Harlan secretly brings Noys to a far-future time and hides her there.
Back at his Eternal job, Harlan finds himself training a man who will later make possible the entire Eternal program, so that he can be sent back in time before the first time machine, to set the process in motion. But Harlan suspects his secret has been discovered and he’s being tested. Will he risk removing the entire Eternal project to save Noys, and will he even be allowed to try?
A good story, well-conceived time travel ideas, but not many appealing characters, and a generally claustrophobic cold-war atmosphere. I probably didn’t notice that when I first read this as a young man. Still, well worth reading or listening to.