Jul 8 2010 9:34am

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.

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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.

james loyd
1. gaijin
"Asimov was incapable of being boring."
Sorry, but as much as I respect the man and his work I can't read that statement without laughing.

Asimov had brilliant, innovative ideas situated in epic frameworks...and written in prose worthy of technical manuals.
David Levinson
2. DemetriosX
Noys...seems like a bit of plot mechanism more than a character.

To be fair, this could be said about a lot of Asimov's characters of either sex. It becomes less true over the years, but still in the 50s, it may have been more true than not. His strength was ideas and plot, rather than character and dialog.

I suppose you could say the recruiting policy speaks well of Asimov in a way. He seems to posit that women of the future either contribute directly or give birth to people who do (with a possible third pole of men doing things to impress women), while men can also drop out or function as space fillers. But then the whole recruitment policy has huge holes in it. It seems to me that you could take anyone in a timeline from after a change you're going to make, bring them to Eternity, and then make the change. Their timeline no longer exists, so any impact they would have had on it is meaningless and they can be removed without causing problems.

Still, one of his better books and rather deeper and more thoughtful than one might expect from pre-New Wave SF.
Jo Walton
3. bluejo
Gaijin: I didn't say he was an amazing stylist, and he wasn't, I said he was never boring. His prose is as close as you can get to being invisible.
4. Brian2
Much as I loved to read Isaac Asimov when growing up (I actually named my parakeet "Isaac" after him), and much as I continue to admire him, it's very difficult for me to read his fiction now. I don't find his prose invisible. It reminds me too much of a period when there were a lot of extremely bright people with an amateur's enthusiasm for science fiction and a lot of wonderful ideas, who struggled to get from an outline to a story. That's something you accepted at the time; it was as if you belonged to a club where everyone would share their ideas for a book, and that was exciting and fun and really the important part, not whatever got written down. He seemed much more at home in his nonfiction.
Pasi Kallinen
5. paxed
That ad in the magazine was the only thing I could remember of this.
Clark Myers
6. ClarkEMyers
In swapping Eternity for Infinity, time travel is expressly rejected in favour of space travel.

True enough but notice that for most purposes - as in the recent discussions on this board - time travel means an assumed or inherent space travel to put the traveler in the same or a related spot on a local coordinate system.

There's a fine story in which time travel is space travel because the destination location is determined by a larger coordinate system - and somewhat like C.S. Lewis's angels (Out of the Silent Planet/That Hideous Strength/Prelandra) who have to in effect run madly to keep up with the moving earth so too time travelers are fixed while the planets and stars move.

There's also the nice little convenience story in which time travel makes slower than light travel effectively faster than light because the travelers move STL to the appropriate spot then time travel to arrive effectively FTL - a short with a snappy ending rather than an exploration of the idea.

The Ugly Little Boy? may be a better character study with time travel but as #4 apparently once did I still enjoy cardboard characters in a story of ideas - I don't mind a bit if it's Wagon Train to the stars - as frex the ending of Tunnel in the Sky
Michael Grosberg
7. Michael_GR
Artist: so, what's this story about?

Editor: well, it's about time travelers who change history so that humanity is forever earthbound and space travel is never invented.

Artist: Great! Let's put a spaceship on the cover.
8. Jason 1110
I always liked this book. It's interesting to compare the consequences of control by an elite in this book to those posited by the Foundation stories. It's as if Asimov is having a dialogue with himself.
9. Dr. Thanatos
I like the way he came back to this book at the very end of his career, positing that robots were involved with the Eternity project.

I have always been impressed with the way Asimov, as he matured, took the best of his early work and blended it into his later writings, weaving together the robot novels, the Foundation stories, etc.

Much better than what Heinlein did in his last years, which mostly seemed forced and sad.
john mullen
10. johntheirishmongol
This is one of my favorite books that I remember from my youth when I graduated from Tom Swift to Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein and Bradbury. It may have been the first time travel book I read.

Now you take the same story and put it in a modern author and you begin with a 3000 page trilogy. Which is better may depend upon your taste. I happen to enjoy both but sometimes I wish someone would just finish their tale.
Ursula L
11. Ursula
One thing that didn't make sense to me in this book, when I read it, was the way that the time agency seemed to be making changes constantly throughout the timeline they were monitoring.

I'd think that, given this technology, you'd observe the entire timeline, but start at the beginning with changes, working your way systematically up through time in order to ensure that a change you were making earlier in history wouldn't interfere with one you were doing later.
Matt Austern
12. austern
I haven't read The End of Eternity in years! Now I'm wondering whether John Crowley ever read it -- in some ways it reminds me a little of "Great Work of Time".
Alex L
13. Quercus
I thought of The End of Eternity when I was reading Charlie Stross's Palimpsest. Time to reread it. Also I have the very edition shown above... I remember my 10-year old self being confused by the cover art, and also wondering why the sky is red.

Palimpsest too, to try and work out what the heck is going on by the end.]
14. Tom Nackid
Asimov said he was inspired to write the story after he had been browsing through some old magazines from the 20s and 30s (much like the protagonist of the book does) when he came upon what he thought at first was a drawing of a nuclear mushroom cloud (the very icon of cold war Armageddon). After a few startled moments he realized it was a drawing of Old Faithful spouting. But what if it was a nuclear blast depicted more than a decade before anyone ever saw one??? Thus SF stories are born!
15. Doug M.
I'm pretty sure John Crowley read this -- he's pretty well versed in the genre.

Jo, if you haven't read _Great Work of Time_, go out and find it right now. Not only does it fit your recent theme of Ineffectual Time Travel, but it's just a crackling good read in its own right. GWOT is almost impossible to describe, but it's one of the few time travel stories that's also a work of no-kidding literary fiction.

Oh, and also it has an authentically SFnal yet truly original version of time travel. Short version: you can't go home after travelling to the past -- not because you've "changed the past", but because every moment has infinite futures. So you'll travel back to a different time than the one you left, no matter whether you do anything or not. (Which is not to say that your doing anything will have no effect...)

Obviously this means that once you start travelling in time, you can't go home again. And this, in turn, ties to the central theme of the novella in a very surprising, sad and moving way.

Highly recommended.

Doug M.
16. Doug M.
Oh, and:

This is one of the first works to explicitly frame space travel as Faustian and Promethean, and a world without space travel as necessarily stagnant. That wasn't a new trope even in 1955, but Asimov made it more clear and explicit than it ever had been before AFAIK.

This would be, of course, hugely influential in years to come.

Doug M.
Paul Andinach
17. anobium
It’s a fast read, I got through it in a couple of hours

It took me days to get through 'The End of Eternity'; I kept having to put it down and go do something else while my nerves settled. It was only because it was Asimov, and I knew it was considered a classic - and probably a bit because it was so short - that I didn't give up on it partway through.

It's funny how different people have different reactions to things, and some people will be thoroughly unsettled by a thing that most people don't even notice. Suspense, for instance. You'd normally think of it in terms of a character being in physical danger or similar; I can handle that, it just makes the situation more interesting. But the premonition that a character is about to do something irrevocably foolish in the confident but mistaken belief that they understand what's going on - that gets me every time.
Jeff Weston
18. JWezy
I remember reading Heinlein, Asimov, and Clarke as a teenager, and loving them all. Funny how things age.

Clarke was tremendously adept at thinking out what changes in technology were predictable, and showing how those changes would make immense new things possible. As a child of the space race, that was wonderful, the idea that things would be better, faster, larger, and it was very tangible in that time. In reality, many advances in technology carry unexpected trade-offs, both technically and societally.

Heinlein was adept at showing how the future would require that his characters have more weapons or sex (or both). While I'm sure the sex thing worked out well for him, the weapon thing seems problematic now - his most memorable heroes now seem better suited to a compound in Waco or a cabin in Montana than, say, my neighborhood. Like a lot of people I knew in my youth, they don't seem as fun or interesting anymore, just maladjusted.

With Asimov, however, you got interesting technical change and a sense of how people and society would have to interact and adapt to it. To my mind, his stuff has aged better, perhaps because there was less pretense in the first place.

I have recently re-read A Fall of Moondust, and found the characters awfully thin (and not just because of the lunar gravity). Likewise, I tried to re-read Time Enough for Love, and found that the characters were a bit more sociopathic than I recalled.

But Nightfall, Foundation, The Caves of Steel, I can still read without the same "what was I thinking" feeling.

To be fair, I also recently re-read Rendevous with Rama, and enjoyed it as much as ever. I won't follow up with the sequels, however, as I recall them being a bit of a letdown. And therein is the risk of generalization.
19. dichroic
You write, "Asimov could write good female characters when he wanted to " - I'm not convinced he could *in 1955*. I get the feeling from his autobiographical writing that his second wife Janet and his daughter Robyn had a lot to do with his understanding of the concept that women are people, not a separate species.
Clark Myers
20. ClarkEMyers
Interesting treatment of the Fermi question - everybody is off-stage until needed for the plot.

There have been books by contrast that told the secret history of frantic efforts to get the homo saps ready for the alien arrival.

Like say Beep knowledge makes the agency with precognition all powerful but why all benevolent I'll never know. I'd be interested in tales of the beginning of Eternity.
Jo Walton
21. bluejo
Clark: Oh good points!

Maybe Donald Kingsbury would write the secret history of the beginning of Eternity?

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