James Nicoll reviews Isaac Asimov’s 1950s time-travel novel, “The End of Eternity,” and finds it still holds up.
Interestingly, Nicoll notes, the premise of Eternity is similar to the Foundation series — a secret cabal manipulating human history — but this novel takes the story in the opposite direction.
Earlier I said the premise of Foundation is sinister when you think about it: The two forms of government we see are empire and rule by a secret, unaccountable conspiracy of technocrats. Both of these states are presented as utopian, when in reality the first has been shown to be pretty awful, and the second looks a lot like Communism, which has not proven to be swell either.
Nonetheless, I cut Asimov slack. He was a VERY young man when he initially wrote Foundation, reading headlines about the Nazis seemingly unstoppably conquering the world and wanted assurance that everything was going to be OK. Asimov’s fictional science of psychohistory could have provided that assurance, had it existed. That observation is not original to me; Alec Nevala Lee said it in his terrific history of science fiction, “Astounding.”
I think it’s also true that in both the Foundation series and later in End of Eternity, Asimov was exploring the desire to be assured that the grownups are in charge of the world, as presidents and prime ministers and heads of billion-dollar companies and vast government bureaucracies, and that these grownups had matters under control. The 21-year-old Asimov who wrote Foundation had very diffferent ideas about that premise than the 34-year-old who wrote The End of Eternity.
Asimov wrote more Foundation stories in the 1980s. By that time he was in his 60s, written hundreds of books, including bestsellers. He appeared many times on national TV and had been published in the New York Times. He was an American public intellectual, and was himself one of the supposed grownups running the world. He had a different perspective on those issues once again.