is my favorite among the many fine science fiction novels by Isaac
Asimov. It is unusual on two counts: it is not about robots
or about a future human galactic civilization, and it concerns time
I discovered Asimov in 1954, when the Swedish science fiction magazine
Häpna! was launched. I borrowed "I, Robot"
from a public library and was captivated by his charming stories
Calvin and her robots with their "positronic" brains.
(Just a few years ago, it lent its name to a film
with a robot theme. Unfortunately, the film "I, Robot"
turned out to have very little in common with the original collection
of stories.) I then started reading some of his SF novels with names
like "The Caves of Steel", "The Stars,
Like Dust", "The Currents of Space", before
hitting upon "Foundation".
The Foundation series describes
the downfall of a Galactic Empire and the efforts of a society of
"psychohistorians" to re-establish a galactic civilization
within a thousand years, thereby saving the Galaxy from the 30,000
years of chaos and suffering that would otherwise follow. The stories
seem to be modeled on the fall of the Roman Empire, the Dark Ages,
and the Renaissance. [Nobel prize winner Paul
Krugman has recently (2012) written an interesting
essay on the Foundation series.]
The End of Eternity has a different theme, although the
concept of social engineering recurs. Here, time travel has been
"So, what else is new", you might say with a yawn, thinking
of the old paradox of going back in time to murder your own grandfather,
or of H. G. Wells The Time Machine, or of Mark Twain's A
Yankee in King Arthur's Court, or of movies such as The Final
Countdown, where a nuclear aircraft carrier is brought back
to WW2, and the Back to the Future trilogy.
Asimov's novel is a much more ambitious and interesting attempt
to work out and discuss the possible consequences of time travel
as such. Time travel is envisaged as being similar to travelling
in an elevator in a shaft between the different centuries and
millenia. When you step out of the "kettle", you still
remain in a separate domain of reality, "Eternity",
where "physiotime" passes
normally. There are no paradoxes as long as you stay in "Eternity",
regardless of any time travel. It is only when you leave this
domain that you enter the normal temporal world. "Entry
into Time was much more complicated than mere passage between
Eternity and the kettle shafts."
A 1940s portrait of Asimov.
"Eternity" is an all-male dominion, where scientists
and technicians are working to increase human happiness by selectively
changing temporal reality. The holy grail of their profession is
to plot and implement the "Minimum Necessary Change" to
accomplish the "Maximum Desired Response", which will
improve the world, perhaps by averting a war or finding a cure for
some lives were shortened, more were lengthened and made happier.
A great work of literature, a monument of Man's intellect and feeling,
was never written in the new Reality, but several copies were preserved
in Eternity's libraries, were they not? And new creative works had
come into existence, had they not?"
To have the story make sense, Asimov had to stipulate that Reality
has a certain inertia, so that the effects of a Reality Change will
gradually dampen out and leave the distant future ("upwhen")
Once you accept the premises of the story (manage to "suspend
disbelief"), you have to admire the ingenuity of Asimov's
vision. "Eternity" stretches forever, and taps energy
from the Sun when it goes nova in 5 billion years. But mysteriously,
the period A.D. 7 million to A.D. 15 million is inaccessible to
"Eternity". Past A.D. 15 million, mankind has gone extinct,
so there is no point going that far "upwhen". Here and
there Asimov uses throwaway lines to suggest, rather than describe,
the characteristics of culture in different centuries. "In
fact, good cigarettes are made only in the 72nd and mine have to
be specially imported from there." -
"The 2481st is the only Century to develop
electro-gravity space-travel... It's a pity we must Change away
from it. A pity."
plot thickens when the hero of the story, a mere technician, falls
in love with a woman in the 482nd century and discovers that she
is going to be wiped out by an imminent Reality Change. When he
makes an excursion into Reality, he nearly runs into himself. While
this is taking place, there is also a project of crucial importance
in progress: to send someone back in time past the time when "Eternity"
was established, in order to inspire the invention that will make
time travel possible in the first place!
Asimov has been criticized for his stereotyped dialog, his shallow
characterizations and, in particular, his inability to credibly
depict women. This never mattered much to me; what attracted me
was the plot and the ideas in his works. Besides - and not surprisingly,
given his career as a professor of biochemistry - the animosities
and jealousies exhibited by some of his scientist characters ring
quite true to me :-)
What Asimov wanted to explore in The End of Eternity was
two conflicting views on "the pursuit of happiness": 1)
Maximizing security and minimizing suffering. 2) Per aspera ad astra
(literally!). It is clear where his own preference lies: "Any
system which allows men to choose their own future will end by choosing
safety and mediocrity, and in such a Reality the stars are out of
reach." I find myself agreeing, up
to a point. While a risk-averse society would probably have condemned
us to remain in our caves forever back in the stone age, in our
present predicament a little risk aversion may not be such a bad
idea? I hasten to add, that I do not advocate repression,
military force and wall-building as suitable tools for enhancing
However, what interests me even more than
Asimov's moral dilemma, is the nature of Reality, and the puzzling
questions that Asimov's novel raises on that subject. It seems to
me that the very concept of "Reality Change" opens the
possibility that Time may have several dimensions, just as Space
does. "Change" and "Time" are closely related.
In the absence of change it would be meaningless to speak of time.
We may think of the Universe as everything that exists at a given
moment, and that the Universe evolves as time passes, but we may
equally think of the Universe as a static, unchanging structure
embedded in four-dimensional space-time (space-time being itself
a feature of the physical Universe), "Reality", where
everything that has happened and will happen "co-exists"
(at least "in the eye of God"!).
To clarify this, consider an ant
moving on a two-dimensional surface. You may depict its motion in
a two-dimensional diagram dynamically by tagging its position with
the corresponding time, or perhaps by animating the diagram so you
can watch the ant move as time progresses. Or you can draw its motion
in a three-dimensional diagram by adding a time axis in the third
dimension. Its motion will then be represented as a static,
unchanging "world line" in three-dimensional space-time.
Personally, I prefer this second perspective.
It seems intuitively appealing to me that the past should be considered
as just as real as the present and the future, and, in particular,
that the present should not be accorded any special status. - Amusingly,
this perspective is shared by the Tralfamadorians in Kurt Vonnegut's
does not look like a lot of bright little dots to the creatures
from Tralfamadore. The creatures can see where each star has been
and where it is going, so that the heavens are filled with rarefied,
luminous spaghetti. And Tralfamadorians don't see human beings as
two-legged creatures, either. They see them as great millipedes
- 'with babies' legs at one end and old people's legs at the other'.
Now, if "Reality" itself changes,
this would mean that our "static" Universe changes. But
there can be no Change in the absence of Time. (Or can it? I am
less positive that Change requires Time than that Time requires
Change.) And this Time could not be our familiar time in space-time.
One might then propose that a Reality Change
does not in fact wipe out the existing reality (just as the 21st
century is no more "real" than the 20th century). A Reality
Change would allow us to move from one reality to the next. We may
think that we have altered the existing reality, but all we have
done is develop a method for travelling between separate but equally
"real" realities. What the "Eternals" in Asimov's
novel do, is not to change reality, but to decide in which reality
they prefer to dwell.
Isaac Asimov (1920-1992)
Is this just a metaphysical speculation without meaning, along
the lines of the scholastic debate on how many angels can stand
on the point of a pin? Well, there is one way to find out. Invent
a time machine, travel back in time to look up your paternal grandfather
before he met your grandmother, then kill him. If you still exist,
then I am right and you have travelled to a new reality where you,
but not your father, nor your younger self, will continue to exist.
Good luck! If you can evade criminal justice, you will be able to
build an immense fortune based on your knowledge of future events.
- Meanwhile, in the present reality, you will just have vanished
without a trace, thus discouraging all further attempts at time
When it comes to Isaac Asimov himself, I could just as easily put
him under the heading "Things that surprise me" as under
"Books". What I have in mind is his remarkable productivity,
and especially the enormous range of his
works. Asimov was not just a prolific science fiction author;
he wrote mysteries, collected dirty limericks, wrote essays and
introductory books in just about all branches of science, and in
addition several books on history and literature. Here is a list
of 1600 of his essays! He must have read thousands of books in preparation
for his own works, and even then, he must have been able to type
even faster than he could read!
Here is the Wikipedia
entry on Asimov. And here is a site
dedicated to his work, with plenty of useful links..