The End of Eternity

The End of Eternity

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The End of Eternity by Isaac Asimov
Isaac Asimov
Isaac Asimov was an American author and professor of biochemistry at Boston University, best known for his works of science fiction and for his popular science books. Asimov was one of the most prolific writers of all time, having written or edited more than 500 books and an estimated 90,000...

 is a science fiction
Science fiction
Science fiction is a genre of fiction dealing with imaginary but more or less plausible content such as future settings, futuristic science and technology, space travel, aliens, and paranormal abilities...

 novel, with mystery
Mystery fiction
Mystery fiction is a loosely-defined term.1.It is often used as a synonym for detective fiction or crime fiction— in other words a novel or short story in which a detective investigates and solves a crime mystery. Sometimes mystery books are nonfiction...

 and thriller elements, on the subjects of time travel
Time travel
Time travel is the concept of moving between different points in time in a manner analogous to moving between different points in space. Time travel could hypothetically involve moving backward in time to a moment earlier than the starting point, or forward to the future of that point without the...

 and social engineering
Social engineering (political science)
Social engineering is a discipline in political science that refers to efforts to influence popular attitudes and social behaviors on a large scale, whether by governments or private groups. In the political arena, the counterpart of social engineering is political engineering.For various reasons,...


The themes are very different from most of his robot and 'space opera' stories, and take a clever approach to time paradoxes
Grandfather paradox
The grandfather paradox is a proposed paradox of time travel first described by the science fiction writer René Barjavel in his 1943 book Le Voyageur Imprudent . The paradox is this: suppose a man traveled back in time and killed his biological grandfather before the latter met the traveler's...

. Some people consider it his best work, or at least one of his best. As of April 2009, a film adaptation—to be directed by Kevin Macdonald
Kevin MacDonald (director)
Kevin Macdonald is a Scottish director, best known for his films One Day in September, State of Play, The Last King of Scotland and Touching the Void.-Personal life:...

—is planned.


In December 1953, Asimov was thumbing through a copy of the March 28, 1932 issue of Time
Time (magazine)
Time is an American news magazine. A European edition is published from London. Time Europe covers the Middle East, Africa and, since 2003, Latin America. An Asian edition is based in Hong Kong...

when he noticed what looked at first glance like a drawing of the mushroom cloud
Mushroom cloud
A mushroom cloud is a distinctive pyrocumulus mushroom-shaped cloud of condensed water vapor or debris resulting from a very large explosion. They are most commonly associated with nuclear explosions, but any sufficiently large blast will produce the same sort of effect. They can be caused by...

 of a nuclear
Nuclear weapon
A nuclear weapon is an explosive device that derives its destructive force from nuclear reactions, either fission or a combination of fission and fusion. Both reactions release vast quantities of energy from relatively small amounts of matter. The first fission bomb test released the same amount...

 explosion. A longer look showed him that the drawing was actually the Old Faithful geyser
A geyser is a spring characterized by intermittent discharge of water ejected turbulently and accompanied by a vapour phase . The word geyser comes from Geysir, the name of an erupting spring at Haukadalur, Iceland; that name, in turn, comes from the Icelandic verb geysa, "to gush", the verb...

. 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
Time travel
Time travel is the concept of moving between different points in time in a manner analogous to moving between different points in space. Time travel could hypothetically involve moving backward in time to a moment earlier than the starting point, or forward to the future of that point without the...

 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
Galaxy Science Fiction
Galaxy Science Fiction was an American digest-size science fiction magazine, published from 1950 to 1980. It was founded by an Italian company, World Editions, which was looking to break in to the American market. World Editions hired as editor H. L...

, 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
The Sun is the star at the center of the Solar System. It is almost perfectly spherical and consists of hot plasma interwoven with magnetic fields...

. It is now known that stars of the Sun's size and situation do not explode, and in fact nova
A nova is a cataclysmic nuclear explosion in a star caused by the accretion of hydrogen on to the surface of a white dwarf star, which ignites and starts nuclear fusion in a runaway manner...

e are not exploding stars. (Only Type Ib, Ic, and II supernova
A supernova is a stellar explosion that is more energetic than a nova. It is pronounced with the plural supernovae or supernovas. Supernovae are extremely luminous and cause a burst of radiation that often briefly outshines an entire galaxy, before fading from view over several weeks or months...

e are genuine exploding stars.)

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
The Foundation Series
The Foundation Series is a science fiction series by Isaac Asimov. There are seven volumes in the Foundation Series proper, which in its in-universe chronological order are: Prelude to Foundation, Forward the Foundation, Foundation, Foundation and Empire, Second Foundation, Foundation's Edge, and...

. He had already included a kind of time-travel in his 1950 novel Pebble in the Sky
Pebble in the Sky
Pebble in the Sky is a science fiction novel by American writer Isaac Asimov, published in 1950. This work is his first novel — parts of the Foundation series had appeared from 1942 onwards, in magazines, but Foundation was not published in book form until 1951...

, though there it was a one-way trip.

The original End of Eternity appeared in 1986 in a collection called The Alternate Asimovs
The Alternate Asimovs
The Alternate Asimovs is a collection of early science fiction drafts by American writer Isaac Asimov. Asimov mostly threw away early drafts...


Plot summary

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
Republic (Plato)
The Republic is a Socratic dialogue written by Plato around 380 BC concerning the definition of justice and the order and character of the just city-state and the just man...

 who carry out carefully calculated and planned strategic minimum actions, called Reality Changes, within the temporal world in order to minimise 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. They 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 the earth deserted of human life.

A key plot element that 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 pivotal moment of the story arrives when the protagonist, Andrew Harlan, a Technician, realizes that he is part of a paradoxical scheme to secure the creation of Eternity by sending a young Eternal back in time with the mathematical knowledge to make it possible. 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
Unintended consequence
In the social sciences, unintended consequences are outcomes that are not the outcomes intended by a purposeful action. The concept has long existed but was named and popularised in the 20th century by American sociologist Robert K. Merton...

 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
An acrostic is a poem or other form of writing in which the first letter, syllable or word of each line, paragraph or other recurring feature in the text spells out a word or a message. As a form of constrained writing, an acrostic can be used as a mnemonic device to aid memory retrieval. A famous...

 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
Enrico Fermi
Enrico Fermi was an Italian-born, naturalized American physicist particularly known for his work on the development of the first nuclear reactor, Chicago Pile-1, and for his contributions to the development of quantum theory, nuclear and particle physics, and statistical mechanics...

) 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 to supply energy, humanity will gain an additional time advantage to leave Earth, and maximize the probability of building a Galactic Empire.

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
Lester del Rey
Lester del Rey was an American science fiction author and editor. Del Rey was the author of many of the Winston Science Fiction juvenile SF series, and the editor at Del Rey Books, the fantasy and science fiction branch of Ballantine Books, along with his fourth wife Judy-Lynn del Rey.-Birth...

 declared that no one "has wrung so much out of . . . or has developed all the possibilities of paradox."

Plot analysis

The plot provides an example of a strange loop
Strange loop
A strange loop arises when, by moving up or down through a hierarchical system, one finds oneself back where one started.Strange loops may involve self-reference and paradox...

 and of an ontological paradox. The Eternals make use of time travel in an effort to protect humanity while the bulk of humanity has no idea that Eternity exists in order to change Reality. The Eternals never realize that they are themselves perpetuating the biggest catastrophe that ever besets humankind. In order to correct the situation, humans from the far-distant future must secretly infiltrate and manipulate the Eternals into altering the not-so-distant past.

The time-manipulation theme is thought-provoking. Many unpleasant events, such as wars, have led to important scientific advances. For example, the two World Wars led to huge advances in aviation. If the Cold War did not occur, there would not have been a moon-landing as early as 1969. If various wars had been prevented (for example, by preventing Hitler's parents from meeting each other), scientific progress might have been much slower.

The encoded message concerning atomic power is not entirely convincing within the bounds of Asimov’s concept—H. G. Wells could conceive of both "atomic" power and "atomic" weapons in The World Set Free
The World Set Free
The World Set Free is a novel published in 1914 by H. G. Wells. The book is considered to foretell nuclear weapons. It had appeared first in serialized form with a different ending as A Prophetic Trilogy, consisting of three books: A Trap to Catch the Sun, The Last War in the World and The World...

(1914), and he was not alone in this. Fermi's work was important, but the lack of it does not explain why no nuclear bomb was used—even as demonstration, up to the 30th century (the description of the 24th century includes nuclear energy, which means that the delay in the development, while crucial, was not above four centuries, or perhaps even affected the mindset of the society instead of the technological progress). Of course, Asimov, with his interest in the history of science, was no doubt fully aware of the slight weakness, which is required by the plot. This final plot twist serves to signal to the reader what was previously hidden, in “whodunit” fashion—that the new future being created by Harlan and Noÿs corresponds to the reader’s future, and that 'Eternity' was actually a dead end.

Interestingly, at one point Andrew mentions dreamies as an example of technology which Eternity cannot allow to exist. Presumably, this is the same technology as in "Dreaming is a Private Thing
Dreaming Is a Private Thing
"Dreaming Is a Private Thing" is a science fiction short story by Isaac Asimov, first published in the December 1955 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and reprinted in the 1957 collection Earth is Room Enough...


The novel’s closing provides the reader with a reassuring perspective for what future will come into existence:
With that disappearance... came the end, the final end of Eternity
—And the beginning of Infinity.

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
Pebble in the Sky
Pebble in the Sky is a science fiction novel by American writer Isaac Asimov, published in 1950. This work is his first novel — parts of the Foundation series had appeared from 1942 onwards, in magazines, but Foundation was not published in book form until 1951...

, considering Harlan's words about the energy requirement for the Temporal Field. The 'neuronic whip' from The Currents of Space
The Currents of Space
The Currents of Space is a science fiction novel by the American writer Isaac Asimov. It is the second of three books labeled the Galactic Empire series, though it was the last of the three he wrote...

 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
Pebble in the Sky
Pebble in the Sky is a science fiction novel by American writer Isaac Asimov, published in 1950. This work is his first novel — parts of the Foundation series had appeared from 1942 onwards, in magazines, but Foundation was not published in book form until 1951...

. 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
The Alternate Asimovs
The Alternate Asimovs is a collection of early science fiction drafts by American writer Isaac Asimov. Asimov mostly threw away early drafts...

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
Foundation's Edge
Foundation's Edge is a science fiction novel by Isaac Asimov, the fourth book in the Foundation Series. It was written more than thirty years after the stories of the original Foundation trilogy, due to years of pressure by fans and editors on Asimov to write another, and, according to Asimov...

, many years later, that the Eternals might have been responsible for the all-human galaxy (and the development of humanity on Earth
Earth is the third planet from the Sun, and the densest and fifth-largest of the eight planets in the Solar System. It is also the largest of the Solar System's four terrestrial planets...

) 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.


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The book was made into a movie entitled Konets Vechnosti (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-1980's Germany rather than 1932 Los Angeles, with Noÿs never fully describing why she wants Eternity destroyed. 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
In sociology and political science, bourgeoisie describes a range of groups across history. In the Western world, between the late 18th century and the present day, the bourgeoisie is a social class "characterized by their ownership of capital and their related culture." A member of the...

 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.

In 2008 New Regency acquired the rights to the novel for a possible film adaptation.

See also

  • The Alternate Asimovs
    The Alternate Asimovs
    The Alternate Asimovs is a collection of early science fiction drafts by American writer Isaac Asimov. Asimov mostly threw away early drafts...

    , a collection of drafts featuring the 1954 story.