The End of Eternity
Cover of the first edition
|Cover artist||Mel Hunter|
|Media type||Print (hardback & paperback))|
The themes are very different from most of his robot and 'space opera' stories, and involve time paradoxes.
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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The novel reflects the state of scientific knowledge of its time, some of which has been superseded.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.
- Andrew Harlan: Twissell's personal Technician
- Kantor Voy: Sociologist
- Laban Twissell: Senior Computer of the Allwhen Council
- Hobbe Finge: Assistant Computer
- Noÿs Lambent: Finge's secretary
- Vikkor Mallansohn: Temporal Field inventor
- Brinsley Sheridan Cooper: Cub mentored by Harlan
- August Sennor: Subcommittee member of the Allwhen Council
The Eternity of the title is an organization carefully isolated from the rest of the temporal world, staffed by male humans called Eternals 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 mysteriously 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 to minimize human suffering. As the plot unfolds, the Eternals feel an unspoken collective guilt which causes them to scapegoat the "Technicians" who execute Reality Changes. The Eternals are also troubled that beyond a certain point in the future they are prevented from entering Time. These are the "Hidden Centuries". Beyond the Hidden Centuries they can emerge, but find Earth devoid of human life.
A plot element 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", prior to the Eternity's creation that, because Eternity had not yet been created, cannot be 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 has been entrapped by one of them into a relationship with a non-Eternal woman, Noÿs Lambent, to prove a point about the effect of Eternity on the individuals from real time who learn of it, with the unintended consequence of making Harlan besotted with the woman, so much so that he smuggles her into Eternity. 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 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, he will actually become Mallansohn himself. Harlan, after (erroneously) concluding that Twissell will deprive him of Noÿs, scrambles the time settings just as the special kettle departs, and Cooper is trapped in the wrong time. 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 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. Here, Asimov’s mistaken “mushroom cloud” appears in the novel: Harlan comes upon an advertisements 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 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, that his lover is to be returned to him and both rescue Cooper. In 1932, Harlan reveals his deduction that Noÿs Lambent is herself an agent of Reality Change, from those centuries the Eternals cannot enter.
She tells Harlan that her people, who prefer rather to watch past time than to change it, discovered that Eternity was, in choosing safety for humanity, suppressing creativity and denying humanity's access to the stars, wherein alien species advance technologically and confine humanity to Earth, until humanity becomes extinct. On these grounds, they cut themselves off from Eternity and began to plot its demise. Noÿs Lambent reveals that to make Eternity improbable, Harlan needs only 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. Acquiring the technology sooner than expected, humanity will be diverted to the science of nucleonics and therefore develop interstellar space travel instead of time travel technology, and create a Galactic Empire instead of Eternity. Harlan at first intends to kill Noÿs and carry out his mission, but confirms his lingering suspicions that Eternity has been wrong for humanity. At the very last moment, he decides to help her, a Reality Change occurs and the 'kettle' linking them with Eternity vanishes.
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 1989 novella "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 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
- Japanese: "永遠の終り", 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
- Chinese: "永恒的终结", 2014
The book was made into a movie entitled Konets Vechnosti (Russian: Конец вечности, USSR, 1987). It broadly follows the novel, except for 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".
In the Soviet film the ending takes place in the mid-1980s Germany rather than 1932 Los Angeles. Noÿs never fully describes why she wants Eternity destroyed, although in the middle of the movie (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 and storms off, and there is a strong implication that he and Noÿs have no 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 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.
- "Publication Listing".
- "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"
- "Last time I did this, I Lied", at Stross's official blog; "If you could re-write one sci-fi (or fantasy) classic, which one would you choose, and why?" "for what it's worth, I've already done it a couple of times, deliberately or accidentally. (I didn't re-read "The End of Eternity" before writing Palimpsest, for example)"; posted April 12, 2011; retrieved December 26, 2014
- 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.