(Copyright by Author - All Rights Reserved)
On November 17, 1953, Isaac Asimov was on the faculty of Boston University. He had just finished his first mystery story, “The Singing Bell,” which Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine had rejected, and his 9,000-word “It’s Such a Beautiful Day,” which would soon be rejected by Fantasy and Science Fiction. He wanted to write another novel, but, at the moment, had no ideas.
Being a collegiate library, Boston University naturally had a collection of bound periodicals. Isaac enjoyed checking out the editions of Time magazine and reliving the history. The librarians took to calling him the “time” professor. In one of the early editions of this newsweekly, he noticed a small drawing out of the corner of his eye. It looked, at first glance, to be a mushroom cloud of a nuclear bomb. The cloud produced by a bomb that would not be produced for at least a half of a generation after this magazine was published.
The idea in the story is that sometime in the 27th-century man has developed the “Temporal Field.” An area outside of time, but that can be connected to any point in time the operator wants. Eventual man uses the power of the far distant sun, going nova, to power “Eternity.” Eternity is a state of being outside of normal time. A Temporal Field that extends from the 27th Century for over a hundred and fifty thousand centuries into the future when the sun has gone nova and all life is extinguished. Eternity can also be seen as a sort of temporal skyscraper with each floor representing a different century. Movement from floor to floor (century to century) is by way of “kettles.” These kettles move along shafts and allow the operator to choose the exact time he wishes to stop. The only exceptions are the years before the 27th Century, which for a sort of foundation to Eternity, and the “hidden centuries” which are, for some unknown reason, blocked to exploration by the “Eternals.”
The “Eternals” are those who inhabit Eternity, and whose job it is to ensure humankind has the safest, most benevolent, life possible. To do this they move through time making the Minimum Necessary Change - M.N.C. to events that will have the Maximum Desired Response – M.D.R. For example, by moving a canister on a shelf, space travel is not attained in the 2456th Century. Space travel, the Eternals have observed, is self-limiting and a waste of energy and resources. The problem is that the time stream is self-correcting and after a few centuries, things are as they would have been (no paradoxes here). Therefore, the Eternals must study the centuries and constantly find the M.N.C. that will provide the greatest benefit as they see fit.
The Eternals, recruited from the best and brightest of the centuries that Eternity covers go through three stages in their development; that of Cub, Observer, and Specialist. The specialists are divided into different casts, the Computer, the Technician, the Sociologists, the Life-Plotters, and the Observers. The utilize whatever technology they need from the centuries they deal with, even if they deem that technology dangerous to humankind and eliminate it in the time stream. For example, each level of Eternity is manufactured using a matter-copying device. This device was deemed too dangerous for Man so the Eternals made the M.N.C. to ensure it would never be invented. However, it is useful to the Eternals so they kept it in their world of the temporal field.
The story follows the exploits of Technician Andrew Harlan who breaks the code of the Eternals and falls in love with one of the subjects of his recent observations. He moves her from a point it time where she was about to be eliminated from the time stream and hides her uptime in a century not used by Eternity. He then goes back to the working levels of Eternity to see what he can do to be sure he can stay with his new lady love. He is willing to do anything even if it means destroying Eternity itself.
That is the basic plot of the novel. There is more involved of course, a few mysteries to be reviled, the reason there is no humanity after a certain century, who really invented the temporal field, who is this Noys of the 482nd Century, etc. However, these are for the person who decides to read the story. Personally, I would advise against it.
This is not one of Asimov’s better novels. Having not yet published a novel myself, I do not stand as an expert on the constructing of such work. However, that said, I have read enough of Isaac’s work, through all periods of his life, to know what is and is not a good Asimov novel, and, in my lonely opinion, this is not one.
In the first place, the characters are not memorable. Even Andrew Harlan, the story’s main character, is uninteresting. Exactly why he does what he does is less than clear, and why he falls for Noys, a driving force in the story, is ignored by the author. The key questions are finally answered in the last two or three pages of the novel, and then there is no time to digest the information, so you just do not care. Time, forgive me, goes on and you are left wondering why you plowed through this story rather than taking up needlework or finishing a jigsaw puzzle. Either of which would have been more productive than navigating to the “End of Eternity.”
When Asimov finished the original story, in February of 1954, he sent it off to Horace Gold of “Galaxy Science Fiction” magazine. Galaxy was a good magazine, the rival of Astounding Science Fiction, and Horace Gold was eager to buy what Asimov had to sell. However, he was a cantankerous man, in Asimov’s opinion, and demanded extensive rewrites of Isaac’s work as well as changed the storyline and titles when they were published. This did not endear Horace to Asimov, but he paid well and that is what any author likes.
Horace did not like the original 25,000-word novelette entitled “End of Eternity,” and wanted a complete revision. He wanted, as Asimov put it, "to jack up the title and run a new story under it." Asimov refused. Doubleday liked the story and asked Asimov to flesh it out into a full novel. Asimov did not like the way Horace handled himself and this may have tainted his view of the story and its value. Doubleday, having let Asimov slip through their fingers in the early years of hardback science fiction, was now eager to atone for their mistakes, and this may have colored their view of the story and its value as well. In either case, I believe Horace Gold had a more accurate opinion this time and that should have been the end of “Eternity.”
Now, let me reiterate here, that Asimov himself thought this was his greatest work and many critics and fans agree. My opinion, which I feel I can support, is the minority one and you are free to disagree with me when you have finished the book. I welcome any honest discussion on how I might be in error.
If you wish to read the novel, it is readily available from Orion Publishing Group; (July 1, 2000) with the ISBN: 0575071184. Amazon.com has the book, both new and used, and it can be yours within the week. Along with standing alone, the text can also be found in the collections “The Far Ends of Time and Earth,” which is also easy to find, and “Other Worlds of Isaac Asimov,” which is not.