The Eternal Now (1944), by Murray Leinster

As I explained in this post last year, as a schoolboy almost fifty years ago I read large quantities of science fiction, including three works that remained lost to me until the arrival of the internet three decades later. The first of these, as described in that post, was Second Ending, by James White. The second of these was a novelette entitled The Eternal Now, by the extremely prolific American author William Fitzgerald Jenkins, published under his most commonly used pen name Murray Leinster. The story first appeared in Thrilling Wonder Stories in September 1944 and was reprinted in Fantastic Story Magazine in January 1953. Its first and to date only appearance in book form was in the 1965 anthology The Shape of Things, edited by Damon Knight.

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It was in this volume, with its surrealist artwork by Eugene Berman (for years I wrongly assumed that it was by Dali), that I first encountered Leinster’s chilling tale of a world frozen in time.

The story’ protagonists are two rival scientists: Dr Harry Brett and Professor Aldous Cable. With a name like Harry Brett, the first named just has to be the good guy. Prof. Cable is the villain, his frustrations at being unable to match Brett’s achievements having driven him to the brink of madness. The story begins in an office building on Forty-second Street, New York. Brett is being introduced to a “a very pretty girl” (as a young woman might have been described in 1944) named Laura Hunt by the latter’s uncle when… “He felt an intolerable shock in every atom. It was like a blow which hit him simultaneously all over, inside and out. He had a feeling of falling endlessly and a sensation of bitter cold. His eyes were closed, and he opened them…

He and Ms Hunt find themselves in a ghostly, frozen world, devoid of sound, colour, or smells. They appear to be in a city, on a terrace outside a penthouse – but in its Stygian gloom, it is unlike any city they have ever seen. There is a climbing plant with grey leaves and grey stalks. When Brett’s jacket brushes against a leaf, the jacket is ripped. Brett examines the seemingly fragile leaf and finds that it is rigid and immovable, harder than iron. He strikes a match – in its light, the leaf’s colour is restored. Similarly, his own dead-grey skin appears normal once more. He is struck by a horrible suspicion about what has happened, but he decides for now not to share his knowledge with Hunt.

Four years earlier, Brett had made an alarming discovery. Einstein had shown that an object travelling close to the speed of light has almost infinite mass and a time rate close to zero. Brett had found that the reverse also applies: if you remove the mass from an object, its time rate will become almost infinite. He built a mass-nullifier and tested it with a live mouse. In just a second, the mouse became a heap of dust. Somebody at such an accelerated time rate could experience decades or indeed a whole lifetime, while no more than an infinitesimal fraction of a second passed in normal time. Terrified by the implications of his discovery, Brett had abandoned his experiments and destroyed his apparatus. But somebody else has made the same discovery and used it to bring them both here – and Brett had a pretty good idea who it is….

Aldous Cable had for a time been the youngest full Professor of Physics in America, but his reputation had never increased. A vain and arrogant man, he was constantly announcing enormously important discoveries that never quite worked out in practice. The reality was that he was not qualified for original and independent research, and eventually he had had to resign his professorship and work as Brett’s assistant. He had proved to be capable in this role – but he certainly wasn’t happy about it. Now Brett realises that Cable has managed to reproduce his experiments and build a mass-nullifier for himself. He obviously intends Brett to share the fate of his experimental mouse – and Hunt, with whom he was shaking hands, has been inadvertently caught up in the feud. The two of them are trapped in a world in which time is frozen, illuminated only by the ghostly grey light of gravitational vibrations. Normal colour can only be restored with matches and other sources of light brought into the accelerated time state.

Then Hunt notices a yellow glow coming from inside the apartment. Inside, they find the source of the glow is a flashlight. Somebody has used a mass nullifier on it and left it there for them to find. Next, they come to a stairwell, lit by the yellow glow of a candle. Further yellow glows have evidently been left as markers. With no other choice, Brett and Hunt follow the trail towards a lighted door. By now, Brett is in no doubt that Cable is responsible for what has happened. There will be a gloating message from Cable recalling the mouse experiment and promising to look out for the heap of dust he will soon become. But he is wrong. Inside a candlelit room is Cable himself, accompanied by about a dozen others.

Cable has indeed built a mass nullifier. He has used it to bring a group of people he had previously impressed with his boasting into the accelerated time state. They were terrified but entirely at his mercy. Only Cable’s mass nullifier could bring food and water into their world. Cable also used it to steal large quantities of jewellery, which he distributed to his unwilling followers. Eventually, Cable had agreed to return to the normal world – only to find that his mass nullifier would not take them back. The device could bring things from the normal time state, but it could not put them back.

Cable had dismantled and reassembled the mass nullifier to no effect. He had built two more, but they too worked in only one direction. Finally, he had been forced to turn to the man whose success has driven him all but insane with jealousy. He locks Brett and Hunt in a small room he has outfitted as a workshop and orders Brett to make the mass nullifier work. With the device working, he will send his group, Hunt, and himself back to normal time – but he makes it clear that he doesn’t intend for Brett to join them.

With a working mass nullifier, Cable could steal, abduct, or murder with complete impunity. But Brett realises there is another trick Cable could pull that could destroy cities or even entire countries. He could do this even with his one-way nullifier, and if he thinks of it, he is certainly insane enough to do it….

You will not be surprised to learn that a) Brett soon figures out what is wrong with Cable’s mass nullifier; b) he and Hunt escape Cable’s clutches; c) they rescue Cable’s followers; d) Cable comes to a sticky end; and e) Brett and Hunt live happily ever after. For the full details see this spoiler.

As with Second Ending, The Eternal Now was a title that stuck in the mind, but Murray Leinster was an author I was at that time unfamiliar with. A couple of years later, I did read some of his work but unlike with James White I did not make the connection. The authorship of The Eternal Now remained unknown until early in 2000, when I managed to identify it with the assistance of the primitive search engines of that time. I didn’t come across Google until 2002, but even with Google it’s not particularly easy to find as a search on ‘The Eternal Now’ brings up over a quarter of a billion hits. A book by Paul Tillich with the same title is a confounding factor. However, I did eventually manage to identify Murray Leinster as the author and The Shape of Things as the anthology I had read thirty years earlier. I recognised the book cover, triggering a memory that had remained dormant for all those years. From there it was a simple matter to source a paperback copy online.

The Eternal Now acknowledges its origin of its plot in The New Accelerator, by H. G. Wells, in which a Professor Gibberne invents an elixir that produces similar effects to Leinster’s mass nullifier. The concept of people experiencing an accelerated time rate also featured in the Star Trek original series episode Wink of an Eye. All of these stories suffer from the same fundamental plot flaw: not only would leaves and water be reduced to immovable solids, but the air would also become solid and anybody experiencing such accelerated time rates would die almost instantly.