For me Robert Silverberg has finally lost his aura. I knew it would happen eventually if I delved into his lesser read 60s works — but I’d been impressed recently with a string of his best (Thorns, Downward to the Earth, The World Inside) which created the aforementioned aura. I believe in the demystification of an author (for nebulous reasons) however painful the reader’s experience might be — at least The Time Hoppers (1967) clocks in at a mere 182 pages.
The Time Hoppers takes place in an overpopulated world held in check by a rigorous numerical system of classes. Each class receives a certain category of job and a certain allotted area of space. The higher the class the more space allotted — Class 2s receive a second house in the mostly abandoned continent of Africa (teleporters transport them back and forth between residences). The lower classes share crowded dormitories. The lowest classes seldom receive any jobs and subsist on a government dole. The world is controlled by the ancient figures of the Class 1s who “live” in expansive residences far underground. Drugs are legalized and government controlled (along with brothels etc) since they distract the masses. Likewise, homosexuality is generally acceptable because it reduces the birth rate (families are allowed two children). Strange cults (some involve communal religious vomiting) proliferate as members of society desperately search for meaning in their regimented, predictable, and generally destitute lives.
Silverberg barely touches on any of these fascinating social issues with anything more than a mere sentence or two… The plot is facilitated by a classic technological advance which takes advantage of the resulting social pressures of overpopulation — the time machine. Alas…
Brief Plot Summary (limited spoilers)
Joseph Quellen, a Class 7, works for the Secretariat of Crime. He’s ordered to investigate the mysterious use of a time machine to transport “hoppers” to a less crowded past. The people who take up the offer to travel back in time are the completely disillusioned — generally the jobless and those unable to rise upward in the class system and receive slightly larger oxygen doles and more housing space. The government, or rather the all-powerful Class 1s deep underground, are against this unlicensed use of time travel for fear of changing the present. The paradoxes presented are the standard unimaginative ones — you could meet yourself, you could die and all your descendants which could invent things don’t, etc. Boring.
Quellen, desiring above else more space to live in, has sequestered illegally a Class 2 residence in Africa. His co-worker, Bogg, has ferreted this out and uses it as a bargaining chip to extract money from his boss. This plays an important role later in the novel.
So, Quellen figures out the name of a man planning on jumping back in time and has him tracked. The government cracks down and prevents him from arresting the men for fear of changing the present. Quellen’s brother-in-law, a increasingly delusional jobless lower class individual, plans on jumping. Quellen is alerted by his sister and through a series of hints and clues figures out the kingpin behind the jumps. However, Quellen and his various colleagues in the Secretariat of Crime are tempted themselves to use the machine!
Silverberg’s World is interesting but all too hastily done. The world attempts to prop up a very banal, predictable, tension-less, and the frustratingly simple plot acted out by cardboard characters. At the very least, the social environment influences the actions of the characters…
The Time Hoppers is a paint-by-the-numbers novel with an intriguing world but little else. The questions raised by time travel are unoriginal and silly. Silverberg’s prose is far below his best — for a brilliant novel on overpopulation read his masterpiece The World Inside.
For the Silverberg completest only… Well, and those addicted to time travel novels regardless of their quality… And, well, readers like me who’ll read any sci-fi novel touching on the social ramifications overpopulation…