Humanity has found the ultimate way to fix its own mistakes, make them never happen. In this book, a group of men that lives outside of time, the "Eternals", modify time. Harlan Andrews, a low ranking technician, is loyal to the idea that unites all Eternals: it is better to change time to help the many, even if it means hurting the few. That is, until he learns that the woman he has fallen in love with, Noys, will be eliminated in a soon to occur time change. So, violating the principals he had always held to as an Eternal, Harlan saves his lover. But soon, he finds that he is part of a much larger conspiracy.
I have never been that crazy about Asimov. I never disliked his writings, but never understood why so many people loved the "Foundation" and "Robot" books. His writing was not bad, just not very entertaining. Therefore, I was surprised at how much I liked "The End of Eternity". This, one of Asimov's early works, is very different from many of his later, better known novels. Asimov for once does not endorse the idea of social engineering, a theme that he became famous for in his "Foundation" novels. Instead he opposes it. Humanity's attempt to change its past and increase "the net happiness quota", only stunts the development of the human race, and leads to its extinction; almost diametrically opposed to the philosophy behind "Foundation".
In addition, this book's main character is very different than characters found in other Asimov books. Harlan is unique in the way that he passionately follows his emotions, often times not thinking of the long term affects of his actions. When he learns that Noys will be destroyed in an upcoming time change he quickly acts to save her. He does this despite the knowledge that his actions might well have effects on the rest of time, and could possibly hurt many people. This passionate/self-centered act is something that you will never find (at least of this magnitude) in a Foundation novel.
Harlan also has many petty concerns. In just about every other Asimov book the main characters he creates are very self-assured, happy with their lives and not worried about their station in society. You get the feeling in this novel that Harlan almost has an inferiority complex. As a technician, he is several rungs down on the ladder, he does not like the way that computers and sociologists look down on him and consider his work to be non-essential. This, combined with the loneliness that comes with being a technician; his class generally does not socialize with each other and are shied away from by the other Eternals, makes a character whose quest for happiness a particularly poignant one.
Not all the characters are non-traditional Asimov characters. Twissel, the head computer in Eternity, is a self-assured, somewhat eccentric character who seems to be pulling the puppet strings through the novel. Yet, he is clueless to the final effects of Eternity's actions, portraying him in the end as a naive character.
The final, and largest difference beween this book and typical Asimov literature, is how much Asimov deals with morality. If this novel is anything it is a book about the morality of changing the future. It first begins with the conventional wisdom that guides Eternity, that changing time can only bring about good for mankind, and slowly shows how it stifles his ability to innovate. I do not believe that there has ever been another Asimov book that took so much time to discuss the benefits and negative affects of a future technology. The technology of changing time is not just the background for the story, it is really part of it, and so provides interesting concepts to ponder while enjoying the plot.
Why "The End of Eternity" is not credited as one of Asimov's great works is beyond me. The novel is an enjoyable read that takes the time to analyze the affects of changing time, something that most "time traveller" fiction rarely does. Perhaps more importantly for Asimov fans, it is a novel that has a strongly different ethos than his later novels.