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End of Time

Entry updated 6 October 2021. Tagged: Theme.

As Robert Louis Stevenson famously wrote, "It is better to travel hopefully than to arrive." The sf interest of the End of Time lies in the getting there – especially the final stages of the journey – rather than the hypothetical place (or time) itself, which is presumably by definition event-free (but see Omega Point).

The most typical sf end-of-time scenario concerns the survival of life and/or sentience as the process of Entropy comes near to running its course. The end point is the "heat death of the universe", when potentials have equalized to leave no energy differences that could sustain life: no hills for water to run down, no Suns to radiate heat and light, no spare mass to fall into Black Holes and gain or release energy in the process, and indeed no black holes to combine in gravitational cataclysms since in this ultimate Far Future they will have evaporated through Hawking radiation to leave an essentially undifferentiated continuum of feeble, minimal-level energy.

Works grappling with versions of this dismal scenario include Isaac Asimov's "The Last Question" (November 1956 Science Fiction Quarterly), with its literal deus ex machina regeneration, and Stephen Baxter's The Time Ships (1995) and Time: Manifold 1 (1999; vt Manifold: Time 1999). Both Baxter novels deploy Time Travel to explore how life might cling on through the universe's increasing entropic senility; and both rewrite the initial conditions of the universe to replace it with an Alternate Cosmos (briefly depicted in The Time Ships, implied in Time) of greater long-term hospitality.

Further notable stories which invoke the end of time include Darwinia (1998) by Robert Charles Wilson (see Virtual Reality; Omega Point), Beyond Infinity (2004) by Gregory Benford and City at the End of Time (2008) by Greg Bear – whose earlier Eternity (1988) featured a message sent back from the closure of the universe. Circular-time scenarios, with the entire universe in a kind of Time Loop, may offer a possibility of renaissance and renewal – as strongly implied in Charles Harness's The Ring of Ritornel (1968) and actualized in Diana Wynne Jones's A Tale of Time City (1987) – rather than mere dull reiteration. A similar outcome is achieved in terms of Cosmology in Poul Anderson's Tau Zero (June-August 1967 Galaxy as "To Outlive Eternity"; exp 1970), whose seemingly doomed Starship makes it through to the next iteration of a cyclic universe.

Some stories imagine the end of time as a present or near-future possibility. Surreal treatments offer such sudden, universal stasis as the natural consequence of stopping a more or less symbolic universe-clock, as in Maurice Richardson's "Ten Rounds with Grandfather Clock" (July 1946 Lilliput; in The Exploits of Engelbrecht, coll of linked stories 1950), Langdon Jones's "The Great Clock" (March 1966 New Worlds) and Alan Moore's "The Big Clock!" (7 May 1983 2000 AD). Terry Pratchett's Thief of Time (2001) postulates a perfect crystal clock which can halt time by measuring it with unprecedented accuracy – echoing the supposed dilemma of quantum measurement which brings the universe to a sudden end in Charles L Harness's "The New Reality" (December 1950 Thrilling Wonder). Barrington J Bayley in Collision Course (1973; vt Collision with Chronos 1977) characteristically invokes an offbeat theory of Time-fronts as independent ripples which animate small portions of a chiefly dead and static universe, leading to the possibility of mutual annihilation as a forward-travelling ripple impacts another local time-front that is moving in the opposite direction – from the first's future towards its past. [DRL]

see also: Dying Earth; Stasis Field; Tenet; Time Abyss; Wandering Jew.

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