Time and Timelessness
Science fiction is preoccupied with dystopian futures. Or at least it seems so to me. Of course, my sci-fi reading has been largely visual and of the Blade Runner variety. The future and its other worlds appear to be dark, greasy and metallic, with questionable hygiene facilities. Since I find reality pretty scary all on its own, I have never been drawn to this. But what about Star Trek, I think. Ok–there you have a utopian future, where mankind has figured some of its “issues” out in celestial therapy and is trying to move forward in a far more inclusive and holistic manner. Kudos to you, Rodenberry and Co. But talk of flux capacitators has never turned my crank, so to speak, and I’ve never joined the ranks of the hard core sci-fi fans. ComicCon will not be seeing me anytime soon.
Fantasy was more my cuppa. The notion of worlds where our rules of physics and matter did not apply, where rationality and realism had different faces, was far more intriguing than the manufactured worlds of sci-fi. Magic, dragons, mind-reading, wizardry–that was where it was at for teen-age me.
But last week I listened to Isaac Asimov’s The End of Eternity. The audiobook was on sale and I figured I’d stopper up one of what the German’s call my “Bildungsluecken,” or “holes in my education.” I spent the first half of the book groaning. Young bureaucrat finds a cute girl, has sex with her and it CHANGES HIS LIFE OMG. The love story between Harlan and Noys enters into the picture as a rather stock gendered trope: man, absorbed by work, is awakened to the possibilities of a full life through his introduction to a sensual, loving woman. He is rational and non-emotional. She is child-like and impulsive. He is uptight about sex. She thinks it is a fun game to play. The feminist listening to this in the car in 2012 groans inwardly, sometimes even externally.
These old tired sexual tropes exist alongside the funky time travel narrative, though, and the plot line involving Harlan and Cooper going into the past and planting information for the future, or sending messages to the future through knowledge of the past and how the future sees it is appropriately complex and compelling. Even the casual observer of sci-fi fiction and film can see how Asimov truly articulates the ethical and technological implications of time travel in ways that still occupy the writers of tv, film, and fiction. What would you go back to change? Why? and, ultimately, is this a good idea?
Against that background, the manipulators (Harlan) become the manipulated (thanks, Noys) and even the ossified gender trope sort of slips sideways into something else. She is not the passive child, and it made me happy to see Asimov play with my expectations regarding her role and then disappoint them. The book is 1955, though, and ends with the two of them in our era, in an unchangeable and immutable past, married, having babies, and leaving the world to its own devices.
As a yearning for normalcy in a post-WWII era, this vision makes sense. But since my intellectual investment in the story was in figuring out Noys’ purpose in the narrative, I was a bit bummed out that she wanted to be June Cleaver. Because she meets a boy, falls in love and IT CHANGES HER LIFE, OMG. Some tropes are evergreen and there is nothing new under the sun.