It is one of the wonders of the written word that a novel about time travel actually functions as a time machine itself – albeit a shaky one. Reading Robert Silverberg’s Hawksbill Station takes us back to the end of the 60ies, but not fully: the possibility of truly experiencing the context in which readers in 1968 read this short novel for the first time is forever lost in time.
According to Lawrence Block, Silverberg wrote 4 books a month at the end of the 50ies and the beginning of the 60ies, “a quarter of a million words a month”. He did so in lots of genres, including “about 200 erotic novels published as Don Elliott” – to pay off the house he bought.
If anything, Hawksbill Station shows that Silverberg was indeed a hardened professional: the prose is rock solid and the pacing is great. But solid prose and great pacing don’t necessarily save a novel from becoming dated. So, has this story about a penal colony for future political prisoners in the early Paleozoic aged well?
I liked the tone of Silverberg’s Dying Inside, and there’s something of that here too in a few short instances of mild satire about revolutionary dialectics. But don’t mistake this for an intricate political book: it is an expanded version of a 1967 novella in which the political angle was mostly absent.
What’s the story about? In a future 1984 the American government is replaced by a “syndicalist” totalitarian regime. That regime sends political prisoners back to a time on Earth with hardly any life – trilobites and moss is about all that’s to be found on barren rocks. They do so via a time machine invented by Edmond Hawksbill.
When the novel starts the penal colony has already existed for years, and has grown to about 140 people – many of them suffering serious mental issues because of their ordeal. The story is centered on Jim Barrett, who is chief because of seniority. After half a year with no arrivals, a new prisoner, Lew Hahn, materializes, and he is a bit of a mystery. The other narrative pull is the backstory of Jim, who we get to know as a 16-year old joining the underground resistance almost by chance, and who we follow right up until he is sent back in time. Those flashbacks – that were not in the novella – are about half of the book.
In an article for Strange Horizons Alvaro Zinos-Amaro writes that “this secondary strand tends to dilute the powerful claustrophobia of the prisoners stuck in the past. Every time we are brought back to the “present” the narrative provides a measure of relief, allowing us to escape the men’s predicament.”
I see what Zinos-Amaro means, but I’m not sure I agree, as I think the “powerful claustrophobia” doesn’t really work in the first place. The mental troubles of most of the men is described sketchily at best, and when Silverberg does dwell on it, often cartoonish. The most striking example is one guy who turned homosexual because of sexual deprivation (the colony has no women), but then decides to stop raping his fellow prisoners, and instead tries to make a woman out of dirt which he hopes lightning will animate. When it turns out he doesn’t seem to have sculpted a vagina, other characters comment that he might be changing orientation again. I don’t want to fault Silverberg for dated notions about sexuality, but things like that don’t help evoking claustrophobia in this contemporary reader. I thought D.G. Compton’s Farewell, Earth’s Bliss – about a penal colony on Mars – did a better job in portraying isolation and what it does to a small society.
The flashbacks do provide a fairly interesting yet typical arc of youthful idealism to older political detachment. And while Silverberg offers an interesting analysis of the USA being fundamentally conceived as a conservative system that didn’t change structurally since it was founded (contrary to countries like France or Germany), there’s not much else that’s really interesting on the political front, because he avoids being outspoken – aside from those few easy shots at dialectics.
Writing in the political climate of his Cold War age he doesn’t make clear choices : the “syndicalist” new government isn’t left nor right. The counter-revolutionaries seem to be modeled on the Russians, at least in name – some characters are described as “Khrushchevist with trotskyite leanings”, and similar denominations – but what they want doesn’t seem to be much more than reinstalling democracy. So don’t expect deep economical or political analysis – it seems as if Silverberg just picked the default revolutionary thought available to him at the time, and only used them as labels to add a bit of color, because that would be easily recognizable for his readers, and feel ‘contemporary’ too.
While art and literature inherently don’t need to have political intentions, it is neigh impossible to escape ideological undercurrents. I think there is truth in Louis Althusser’s dictum “Ideology represents the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence”, and so that relationship unavoidably has an effect on writing too. As such, and especially given the subject matter of the book, it is a bit of a missed opportunity Silverberg didn’t try to communicate his political thoughts better, but I get it: he tried to write an entertaining book first – that house, you know. So a political manifest this not, even though it isn’t too bad as a short sociological sketch of a fictional case study.
I can easily forgive some factual mistakes (the early Paleozoic and Late Cambrian are not the same, and both also feature much more life forms than he describes – maybe science wasn’t sure on that front in the 60ies), but I’m frankly baffled by – spoiler – new arrival Lew Hahn’s psychology: if they were never sure whether prisoners actually survived time travel to begin with, surely his mission was possibly suicidal?
I also think some readers today might take offense in the way Silverberg portrays Barrett’s thoughts on his girlfriend Janet in the flashbacks, even though there is a certain realism to the matter.
Finally, the time travel aspect of this book is not the focus, but overall well done: the basic idea of using it as a form of banishment is good, and there are a few interesting details too. On the other hand: while the mechanics are clearly not the novel’s point, I’m not sure if that excuses Silverberg for being sloppy & illogical about it. How does one install a receiving station in the past? And why? It doesn’t seem necessary given stuff that materializes elsewhere too? Silverberg wrote a whole lot on time travel: that article by Zinos-Amaro mentions 9 other novels and 10 short stories on the matter, so if that is your thing, there’s more to explore.
Anyhow, Silverberg can write, so much is clear. For a laudatory 21st century review, I refer you to Joachim Boaz’s Ruminations, for whom the claustrophobia did work. He also highlights Jim Barrett as a character, and while I agree that his personal arc is well done, interesting and with sufficient depth, I would not say he is “one of best realized characters I’ve ever come across in science fiction”.
All and all, if I’m honest, I think the audience for Hawksbill Station – published in the UK as The Anvil of Time – has become very limited today. Having said that, if you are a fan of Silverberg this is a must-read, and if you’re big on vintage science fiction of the 60ies you shouldn’t hesitate either if you happen to find this in a second hand shop – should be cheap, and reading it flies by. I do think I liked The Man in the Maze better though.
I still have copies of Silverberg’s Downward to Earth and The World Inside on my TBR, and I’m sure I’ll get to them eventually – books like these are great palate cleansers in between other stuff, and whatever the quality, they always offer some welcome historical perspective.