Time Control: Isaac Asimov’s The End of Eternity

Asimov published The End of Eternity in 1955, and so it’s short—my 1975 Panther edition is 155 pages, and cost 35p or $1.25 Canadian, and features a typical British paperback SF Chris Foss generic spaceship cover that has absolutely nothing to do with the book. It’s a fast read, I got through it in a couple of hours, and still an interesting one. Asimov was incapable of being boring. I hadn’t read it in a long time, and I only remembered the skeleton of the plot and one telling detail.

Time travel was invented in the twenty-third century, and Eternity was founded a few centuries later. Eternity stands outside Time, observing and messing about with it, to make the one and only reality the best of all possible worlds. Eternals are drafted from Time—they are people whose absence from history makes no difference. They’re all men, because you seldom find women in that position. (This is firmly stated, and it’s necessary for plot reasons, but I raise my eyebrows at it every time.) Time travel works only between centuries in which Eternity exists, you can’t go back further than that. So what we have here, astonishingly, is a time travel book that is all about the future with nothing about history at all.


The Eternals live outside Time, though time passes for them the same way it does for everyone. Paradoxes and the issue of meeting yourself can only happen within Time. The Eternals are incredibly smug and self-satisfied and busy making “Minimum Necessary Change” to keep everything nice. They change the one and only reality to promote lowest common denominator happiness. They take technology they want and then change reality so that it doesn’t exist in Time because it would be too disruptive.

Andrew Harlan is a Technician who identifies and makes those changes. His hobby is “Primitive” history, the history of the period before the invention of time travel, history that always stays the same. He thinks of himself as a monk in the service of Eternity. Then he falls in love with a young lady from the 575th century, gets caught up with a loop in continuity his bosses are arranging—and then everything goes wrong. The book is called The End of Eternity, so you may think you don’t need a spoiler warning, but actually you do. Spoilers follow.

This is the ultimate book about the futility of time travel. Brunner suggests that time travel that changes reality will tend to wipe itself out by changing reality so it isn’t invented. Asimov specifically says that it’s a terrible idea because with the power to change things, however benevolent you are, you’ll change things in a cautious way, to make things safer. Space flight dies out every time because of the changes they make.

In swapping Eternity for Infinity, time travel is expressly rejected in favour of space travel. One change is made—and not one that would be made today to bring about a brighter future! They give the people of the primitive era of 1932 a hint about atomics, which of course will lead to mankind going to the stars at the earliest possible opportunity. It’s hardly possible to read this in 2010 with the same optimism as readers did in 1955, or even as I did in 1975, even given the recent discovery of lots more extrasolar planets.

The End of Eternity, with its all male fraternity of paternalistic meddlers, seems almost painfully sexist, and Noys, the beautiful love interest from the decadent 575th century, seems like a bit of plot mechanism more than a character. However, when all is revealed—on what is practically the last page—it turns out that Noys is from the far future and has been manipulating everything else to get what she wanted, a future of humanity in the stars. I don’t know if this is enough to redeem her as a character or the whole setup to that point. Asimov could write good female characters when he wanted to (Arkady from Second Foundation) so let’s be generous and give him the benefit of the doubt here.

The one detail from the book that had stuck in my mind was the time traveler stranded in 1932 putting an ad in a magazine he knew would survive saying “All the Talk Of the Market” in front of a drawing of a mushroom cloud, to attract the attention of his friends in the future who were trying to rescue him. ATOM and the cloud would mean nothing in 1932 and everything in Eternity, or even in 1955. I don’t know why this kind of thing has stayed with me forever when I had forgotten all the other details of the plot.

My other thought was what a Cold War book it is, without being one of those that has Soviets in the twenty-sixth century or anything like that. The controlled planned centuries of Eternity are explicitly contrasted with the free chaotic future expanding among the stars in a way that seems shaped by the rhetoric of Free World vs Communist world. And I don’t think there’s much more to be said on useless time travel after this, where Harlan and Noys choose for humanity to give up hundreds of thousands of years of safe future on Earth for the possibility of freedom among the stars.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.


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