The End of Eternity
Dust-jacket from the first edition
|Cover artist||Mel Hunter|
|Genre||science fiction novel|
|Media type||Print (Hardback & Paperback))|
The themes are very different from most of his robot and 'space opera' stories, and take a clever approach to time paradoxes.
In December 1953, Asimov was thumbing through a copy of the March 28, 1932 issue of Time when he noticed what looked at first glance like a drawing of the mushroom cloud of a nuclear explosion. A longer look showed him that the drawing was actually the Old Faithful geyser. However, he began pondering the question of what the implications would be if there had been a drawing of a mushroom cloud in a magazine from 1932, and he eventually came up with the plot of a time travel story. He began the story, called "The End of Eternity", on December 7, 1953, and finished it on February 6, 1954, by which time it was 25,000 words long. Asimov submitted the story to Galaxy Science Fiction, and within days received a call from Galaxy editor Horace L. Gold, rejecting the story. Asimov decided to turn the story into a novel, and on March 17 he left it with Walter I. Bradbury, the science fiction editor at Doubleday, to get his opinion. Bradbury was receptive, and by April 7 Asimov was informed that a contract for the novel was in the works. He began expanding the story, eventually delivering the novel version to Bradbury on December 13. Doubleday accepted the novel and it was published in August 1955.
The novel reflects the state of scientific knowledge of its time, some of which has been superseded. For instance, the power source for the time travellers is referred to as "Nova Sol", a link to the far future being used to tap the energy of the exploding Sun. It is now known that the Sun is too small to explode.
As may be seen below, the novel may also be counted as the prequel to the Empire series of novels, which form part of the Foundation Series. Asimov had already included a kind of time-travel in his 1950 novel Pebble in the Sky, though there it was a one-way trip.
The original End of Eternity appeared in 1986 in a collection called The Alternate Asimovs.
The Eternity of the title is an organization and a place which exists outside time. It is staffed by male humans called Eternals who are recruited from different eras of human history commencing with the twenty-seventh century. The Eternals are capable of traveling “upwhen” and “downwhen” within Eternity and entering the conventional temporal world at almost any point of their choice, apart from a section of the far future which they cannot enter. Collectively they form a corps of Platonic guardians who carry out carefully calculated and planned strategic minimum actions, called Reality Changes, within the temporal world in order to minimize human suffering as integrated over the whole of (future) human history.
As the plot unfolds, however, it is increasingly evident that Eternity itself suffers from serious maladjustments. The Eternals feel an unspoken collective guilt which causes them to scapegoat the "Technicians", the experts who actually execute Reality Changes by doing something that will alter the flow of events. The Eternals are also troubled that beyond a certain point in the future they are blocked by unknown means from entering Time. These are the "Hidden Centuries". Beyond the Hidden Centuries they can emerge, but find Earth devoid of human life.
A key plot element which emerges quickly as the story unfolds is the relatively static nature of the human societies in the various future centuries, and the repeated failure of space travel in all accessible centuries. We later learn that Laban Twissell (Harlan’s superior and the leading figure on the governing Council) is from "a Century in the 30,000s", yet nothing much is different in that time.
The protagonist is a Technician named Andrew Harlan, who finds himself involved in an ontological paradox orchestrated by his superiors. He is to secure the creation of Eternity by sending a young Eternal back in time with the mathematical knowledge to make it possible. To facilitate this Harlan's superiors in Eternity allow him to pursue his study of "prehistory", which is history prior to the Eternity's creation that, because Eternity had not yet been created then, cannot be traveled to nor changed. This intellectual pursuit is largely frowned upon by the Eternals, especially Harlan's superiors, but it becomes apparent his expert knowledge on the subject will be vital to Eternity's creation. Harlan himself is in trouble with the leaders of Eternity. He has been entrapped by one of them into entering into a relationship with a non-Eternal woman, Noÿs Lambent. This was intended merely to prove a point about the effect of Eternity on the individuals from real time who learn of it, but it has the unintended consequence of making Harlan besotted with the woman, so much so that he smuggles her into Eternity, since he has discovered that she will cease to exist in real time when the Eternals make their next Reality Change. Harlan’s whole scheme comes apart when it is revealed the leaders are fully aware of his activities.
Normally the Eternals traverse from century to century within Eternity in a kind of temporal elevator called a kettle. A special version of the kettle has been built, however, for Harlan to dispatch a young Eternal, one Brinsley Sheridan Cooper, back to the 24th century, which lies “beyond the downwhen terminus” accessible via Eternity and its kettle system. Cooper is carefully instructed that he is to teach the principles and technology of time travel to its historic inventor, Vikkor Mallansohn, but unbeknownst to Cooper or Harlan, he will actually become Mallansohn himself. However Harlan, filled with malice after (erroneously) concluding that Twissell has trapped him and will deprive him of Noÿs, scrambles the time settings just as the special kettle departs. Cooper is trapped in the wrong time, so Eternity cannot be created. Unless something is done to change the past, Harlan’s reality, and Eternity, will be erased from existence.
Twissell reveals that he too had once improperly loved a woman in Time, and manages to persuade Harlan that he sympathizes. Calming down, Harlan tries to think of a way that Cooper, also adept in the concept of Reality Change, could send him a message to return and retrieve him. Harlan believes that the apparently random target setting he chose on the kettle was the 20th century, and it occurs to him that Cooper was interested in his collection of artifacts from that time, particularly magazines. Perhaps the trapped Cooper would have found a way of leaving his SOS message in one of them.
This is where Asimov’s mistaken “mushroom cloud” appears in the novel. Harlan comes upon an ad for stock tips—All the Talk Of the Market, concealing the acrostic A-T-O-M, accompanying a drawing of a mushroom cloud. The year on the masthead of the preserved publication is 1932. Since this predates the first atomic explosion, it must be a coded message from someone from the future—a reality change caused by Cooper.
Before he reveals this discovery to the other Eternals, Harlan exacts a price, his lover is to be returned to him and both will go back to rescue Cooper. Once the couple arrive in 1932, Harlan reveals his last surprise. He has deduced that the woman, Noÿs Lambent, is herself an agent of Reality Change. She is from those centuries the Eternals cannot enter.
She does not deny it. Instead she tells Harlan that her people, who prefer to watch past time rather than travel in it or change it, discovered that Eternity was, in choosing safety for humanity, suppressing creativity. In the end this has the effect of denying humanity's access to the stars, as alien species advance technologically and confine humanity to Earth. Eventually humanity will die out, millions of years in the future, leaving an empty Earth. However, if Eternity could be prevented from being created, humans would leave Earth and colonize the stars. Thus they cut themselves off from Eternity and began to plot its demise.
It was not any specific Change but the very existence of any such organization as Eternity which had the deleterious effect, since when given the choice humanity would always choose safety. Noÿs Lambent reveals that in order to make Eternity improbable, Harlan needs only to decide to leave Cooper stranded in 1932. She also intends to send a carefully worded letter to Italy, causing a man (presumably Enrico Fermi) to "begin experimenting with the neutronic bombardment of uranium". This will start a chain of events which will lead to the first atom bomb in 1945. In the reality known up to that point, atomic power was discovered somewhat later (it is not explained when, but the 24th century had nuclear reactors, and no nuclear bombs were detonated until the 30th century). Acquiring the technology sooner, humanity will be diverted to focus more on the science of nucleonics and therefore develop interstellar space travel instead of time travel technology, and leading to a Galactic Empire instead of Eternity.
Harlan at first intends to kill Noÿs and carry out his mission, but in comparing her story to that of the freakish and occasionally inhuman Eternals he has encountered, Harlan confirms his lingering suspicions that Eternity has been wrong for humanity. At the very moment he decides to help her, a Reality Change occurs and the 'kettle' linking them with Eternity vanishes into thin air.
New York Times reviewer Villiers Gerson praised the novel, saying it "has suspense on every page" and "exhibits in every chapter the plot twists for which the author is famous." In a 1972 review, Lester del Rey declared that no one "has wrung so much out of . . . or has developed all the possibilities of paradox."
As noted by critic Susan Young, John Crowley's award-winning "Great Work of Time" has the same basic outline as "The End of Eternity" - i.e. a secret society of well-meaning time travelers bent on remodeling history, and a young man recruited into the society in order to make a specific change that would bring this society itself into being. The details of what the time travelers do and where in time they operate are much different from those in Asimov's book. However, in both books, the society's operations come to a halt through the influence of people from the future, because the society's actions endanger the existence of that future. Young also notes a similarity with Poul Anderson's "The Corridors of Time" which also depicts a complex society of time travelers, who find sections of the future inaccessible - and also in Anderson's book, the intervention of the people of that further future plays a pivotal and cataclysmic role in the plot.
Role in the "Foundation" Series
As written, The End of Eternity suggests that the new reality is the one that leads onto the Galactic Empire and Foundation, but does not confirm it. The mechanism of time travel is most likely not that stumbled across in Pebble In The Sky, considering Harlan's words about the energy requirement for the Temporal Field. The 'neuronic whip' from The Currents of Space and other stories in the "Empire" future is also found in The End of Eternity, again as something which had to be removed from Reality. It is predicted that the Earth will end up mostly radioactive, as per The Stars Like Dust and Pebble In The Sky. There are also no aliens who could compete with humans—see "Blind Alley", in which the aliens' predicament is rather like that which will overtake humanity if 'Eternity' is not prevented.
The woman from the far future does explain that her people are working to ensure that a Galactic Empire becomes a certainty. The hint could mean that a real record got through but was garbled, confusing the Eternals with their unnamed enemies. Noÿs says "we will remain to have children and grandchildren, and mankind will remain to reach the stars". If they had passed on some knowledge, they might have been selective and not mentioned the dangerous alternatives.
The original unpublished End of Eternity is clearly a different future from that of the Foundation, but Asimov says in his story-postscript that he had some idea of a bridge in the published version.
Asimov placed a hint in Foundation's Edge, many years later, that the Eternals might have been responsible for the all-human galaxy (and the development of humanity on Earth) of the Foundation Series, but that interpretation is disputed. Asimov himself mentions the disparity. The human-like robots may have been intended to play a part. It is one of the loose ends that he may have planned to clean up, but died before doing so.
- Italian: "La Fine dell'Eternità", 1956
- German: "Das Ende der Ewigkeit", 1958
- Russian: "Конец вечности", first edition 1966 (a Soviet translation, heavily censored due to both sexual references and sociological discussions unacceptable to Soviet ideology). The translation was adapted into a movie in 1987. Another translation came out in 2003.
- Polish: "Koniec wieczności", 1969
- Hungarian: "A halhatatlanság halála", 1969 (The death of immortality)
- Dutch: "Het einde van Eeuwigheid", 1972
- Estonian: "Igaviku lõpp", 1973
- Swedish: "Tidens död", 1973 (The Death of Time)
- Danish: "Evigheden er forbi", 1974 (The Eternity has Ended)
- Spanish: "El fin de la Eternidad", 1977
- Slovak: "Koniec večnosti" 1977
- Hebrew: קץ כלזמן 1979, סוף הנצח 2010
- Greek: "Το τέλος της αιωνιότητας", 1979
- Bulgarian: "Краят на вечността", 1981
- Finnish: "Ikuisuuden loppu", 1987
- Georgian: "მარადისობის აღსასრული", 1988
- Serbian: "Kraj Večnosti", 1990
- Ukrainian: "Кінець вічності", 1990
- Czech: "Konec věčnosti", 1993
- Romanian: "Sfârşitul eternităţii", 1994
- Lithuanian: "Amžinybės pabaiga", 1996
- Turkish: "Sonsuzluğun Sonu", 1997
- French: "La Fin de l'éternité"
- Portuguese: "O fim da eternidade"
- Montenegrin: "Kraj vječnosti"
- Korean: "영원의 끝", 2012
The book was made into a movie entitled Konets Vechnosti (Russian: Конец вечности, USSR, 1987). It broadly follows the novel, with the notable exception of the ending. The novel ends with Noÿs and Harlan mutually deciding that Eternity's suppression of spaceflight was not in the interest of humankind and then living "happily ever after". The Soviet-era film, however, ends very differently. The ending takes place in the mid-1980s Germany rather than 1932 Los Angeles, with Noÿs never fully describing why she wants Eternity destroyed (although in the middle of the movie, well before her true identity is revealed, she gives a shortened version of the explanation). Harlan yells at her that he was but a pawn in things, storms off, and there is a strong implication that he and Noÿs would not have any further contact. Following that, a scene shows Harlan observing both Twissell and Finge in 1980's clothing getting out of a Rolls Royce and walking together. The clear implication is that Twissel and Finge were using Harlan as a pawn to further their own materialistic gains. While out of step with the rest of the film as well as the novel, the ending does follow the Soviet concept that the "everyman" (Harlan) is frequently manipulated by the bourgeoisie as a pawn to the bourgeoisie's own ends. The movie ends with a long shot of Harlan walking away from the camera, alone, down a highway.
A television film based on the book, entitled A halhatatlanság halála (literally The Death of Immortality) was made in Hungary, 1976. The screenwriter and the director was András Rajnai and the main character was played by Jácint Juhász.
The 2011 movie "The Adjustment Bureau" employs some of the ideas of the "End of the Eternity".
- The Alternate Asimovs, a collection of drafts featuring the 1954 story.
- "In the Realm of the Spaceman," The New York Times Book Review, October 23, 1955, p.30
- "Reading Room", If, April 1972, p.119-20
- "Susan F. Young", "Well-Meaning Do-Gooders and Time-Travel Paradoxes" in Edward Bell (ed.) "The Sociology of Science Fiction"
- In the novel... I wanted to tie it somehow with earlier books of mine dealing with the rise and fall of the Galactic Empire." (The Alternate Asimovs)
- The fable states that there were those who could step out of time and examine the endless strands of potential reality. These people were called the Eternals and when they were out of time they were said to be in Eternity. It was their task to choose a Reality that would be most suitable to humanity. They modified endlessly—and the story goes into great detail. Eventually they found (so it is said) a Universe in which Earth was the only planet in the entire Galaxy on which could be found a complex ecological system, together with the development of an intelligent species capable of working out a high technology.” (Foundation's Edge, chapter 74.)
- If you wish an account of the Eternals and the way on which they adjusted human history, you will find it (not entirely consistent with the references in the new book) in The End of Eternity. (Afterword in Foundation's Edge)
- Therefore, it is said, it was the robots who established Eternity somehow and became the Eternals. They located a Reality in which they felt that human beings could be as secure as possible—alone in the Galaxy. Then… the robots of their own accord ceased to function. (Foundation's Edge, chapter 74.)
- A halhatatlanság halála, Hungary, 1976
- "Asimov’s The End of Eternity follows Foundation adaptation". Sffmedia.com. Retrieved 2014-02-20.
- Tuck, Donald H. (1974). The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy. Chicago: Advent. p. 21. ISBN 0-911682-20-1.