The story is set in a world where Time Travel is highly sophisticated. A group of people known as Eternals reside in a space outside of our normal reality, but linked to it via vehicles called Kettles. They recruit people from the normal timeline, and control the period from the 27th Century to the 70,000th Century. Within this period, they are constantly making Reality Changes, which are used to erase wars and technological advances deemed contrary to the human race. One of the main themes is that space-travel, a staple in Asimov's other science fiction works, has been repeatedly stomped out in order to preserve the status quo and keep humanity on Earth (not out of sheer malice, but because advances in space travel always seem to coincide with increased drug use, crime, etc., so these advances are undone "for the greater good").
Eternals are composed of several groups — Sociologists, Technicians, Life-Plotters and Computers note are mentioned, in addition, there are also Maintenance people. Sociologists accumulate data and analyze it for possible Reality Changes. Computers narrow down when and where the Reality Change takes place, and the Technicians pinpoint and make the Reality Changes themselves. Because of this, Technicians are highly revered, yet feared. They are also supposed to suppress all emotion because of the nature of their job, and thus rarely find love.
The start of Eternity is explained to be a time paradox. The man who "discovered" time travel in Primitive times (before Eternity) wrote a journal. In the journal, he detailed his life, in which he is trained by the main character and his Computer superior and sent back in time to restart the loop. The Computer superior knows all of this, but the main character and their trainee do not.
The story revolves around Andrew Harlan, a particularly skilled Technician, and his role in the ending of Eternity. Large spoilers — click to reveal
The book, though relatively obscure (for a science fiction book written by Isaac Asimov), has achieved an interesting place in the minds of Foundation fans who either consider the Twist Ending to be the reason the Robots/Empire/Foundation series even began or others who (plausibly) claim that The End of Eternity is not part of the Foundation series's canon. The former seem to be the majority and considering how Asimov's fanbase still survives, it's strange that it took so long for the book to be printed again.
(If you're looking for the completely unrelated RPG, that's on the wiki as Resonance of Fate, its English title.)
This work features examples of the following tropes:
- Alternate History: Several different versions of history occur over the course of the book, due to the interventions of the Eternals.
- Always Someone Better: Twissel.
- Anthropic Principle: Discussed in-universe. Twissel is quite handy in making an argument like "There must be a way to fix this disastrous accident that happened with Cooper in the 20th Century, because if there were no way, then we would have popped out of existence and we wouldn't be sitting here thinking about the problem." Harlan can see that Twissel is right, but he's a little uncomfortable talking to someone who can make an argument like that as if it's somewhat obvious.
- Bat Deduction: First subverted, Harlan's discovery that Cooper is Mallansohn was actually implanted by Noÿs, later played straight with Harlan finding out that Noÿs is an agent from the later centuries.
- Because Destiny Says So: Twissel's justification for the Stable Time Loop. He's utterly wrong.
- Covert Group with Mundane Front: Officially, the Eternity is nothing but a group of traders.
- Cure for Cancer: At one point, an Eternal goes into a rant about how Centuries in the past, where it's yet to be invented, request doses from his time, and he can only give them so many.
- Does This Remind You of Anything?: 10% of the people are busy with constantly rewriting the past, the other 90%, despite being looked down upon, are actually better off, you need a special permission for a relationship with a woman... Can we say 1984?
- Double-Meaning Title: The title initially appears to refer to Eternity's purpose, the thing that supposedly justifies its means. It turns out to also refer to that which is the opposite of the Beginning of Eternity.
- Eternal English: Averted; in fact, few character aside from Harlan know "ancient" English — though of course Translation Convention is in effect (see below).
- Evolutionary Stasis: Discussed and arguably justified. Twissell, from beyond the 30,000th century, is virtually indistinguishable from a modern human (to make no mention of Noÿs, who's from beyond the 100,000th century and still there's no way to tell). Twissell is convinced that this stagnation is due to some machination from beings in the future, but it's revealed that Eternity itself has deprived humanity of any evolutionary drive.
- Fan of the Past: Harlan is fascinated by pre-Eternity history, and his collection of 20th-century books and magazines (on paper!) becomes a plot point.
- For Want of a Nail: The Eternals exploit this professionally and with mathematical precision. The book begins with the main character changing the course of history by moving a small object onto a different shelf.
- Forbidden Fruit: Noÿs to Harlan.
- HeelFace Turn: Twissel.
- Hitler's Time Travel Exemption Act: Subverted: World War II did not end with a nuclear strike in their reality, but the heroes cause it by sending instructions to a scientist on how to create a nuclear bomb and prevent Eternity from ever forming.
- Manic Pixie Dream Girl: Noÿs seems to be one at first, being a sexual free spirit that breaks Harlan out of his repressed shell, but this is repeatedly subverted over the course of the book. It turns out the reason she was interested in him was because of a rumor in her time that sleeping with an Eternal will make a girl immortal. But then she tells him that she actually was attracted to him, and the immortality, if true, would only have been a bonus. But THEN it is revealed she is actually one of the unknown far-future humans, who came back in time to manipulate Harlan into a position where he could unmake Eternity... but she actually is still in love with him (because she spent so much time studying him in preparation for her mission), and fully intends to live out her life with him in the past... if he doesn't kill her.
- Place Beyond Time: Eternity itself.
- Public Secret Message: A stranded time traveller publishes an advertisement in a 1932 newspaper containing a picture of a mushroom cloud and the phrase:All the
- While this means little to locals, the stranded time traveller knows that Mission Control in the future has a large collection of 20th century advertising. The atomic bomb anachronism tells Mission Control where and when he is.
- Its not stated outright in the story, but some commentary by Asimov revealed that the advert was in ''Time'' magazine
- Rubber-Band History: The new history that is created at the end of the novel by the intervention of the Lost Century people is ours — after all, our history books tells us the first detonation of an atomic bomb has happened, and was in 1945...
- Science Is Bad: Averted. The novel is an explicit rejection of the trope.
- Set Wrong What Was Once Made Right: As it turns out, the Eternal's attempts at fixing history results in humanity's stagnation and extinction, all the changes the Eternals made to history are undone.
- Shiny-Looking Spaceships: Eternity, in their quest to raise the sum total of happiness, keeps these from ever being made. In fact, they keep serious space travel from ever happening at all.
- Space Travel Veto: A conspiracy controls the development of human history, preventing social and technological developments that it considers to be against humanity's best interest. It's specifically mentioned that the Eternals have repeatedly ensured that manned space travel never gets developed to any serious extent, regarding it as an extremely wasteful enterprise which gives nothing in return.
- Stable Time Loop: The whole story is about breaking one, but the characters don't realize there is one until late in the story.
- Technologically Advanced Foe: the humans living in the 100,000th century and above appear to be this to Harlan and Twissel, temporarily cutting off time travel past the 100,000th in an act Twissel calls "theoretically impossible"
- Time Travel
- Time Travel for Fun and Profit: The Eternity's official purpose is trading goods between centuries.
- The Time Traveller's Dilemma: The whole point of the book.
- Title Drop
- Translation Convention: Although English is a dead language, the characters' conversation are rendered in it. This would probably be unnoticeable, except that it makes one specific bit of exposition sound rather weird:Harlan: A-T-O-M spells "atom", which is an ancient English word for an atom.
- We Will Not Have Appendixes in the Future: This is actually a plot point.
- Wham Episode: As is probably implied by the amount of spoiler tags on this page, the twist ending is one hell of a twist ending.
- You Will Be Beethoven: Tied to the invention of the time machine.