Robert Silverberg strikes gold with Hawksbill Station (1968), a dark, restrained, and powerful rumination. I have found Silverberg’s novels, like those of one of my other sci-fi favorites John Brunner, hit or miss. The worst of Silverberg’s novels I’ve read, for example The Time Hoppers (1967) and Master of Life and Death (1957), are cringeworthy. His best, Downward to the Earth (1970) and The World Inside (1971), rank among my all-time favorites.
Hawksbill Station‘s setting, Earth’s Cambrian era, provides the perfect backdrop for the all too human dramas that unfold. Jim Barrett’s flashbacks enhance the poignant loneliness and sense of missed opportunity that pervades every page. The pangs of old age, responsibility, and disability that afflict the elderly Barrett are convincingly portrayed. Silverberg’s use of time travel is limited, simplistic, and solely to facilitate the novel’s basic premise. Thankfully, it’s not a cool gadget to expound endlessly on, to construct bizarre paradoxes, to kill world leaders and accidentally meet ones own parents i.e. the gaudy/silly type of time travel I despise (well, most of the time).
Hawksbill Station should be high on any sci-fi fan’s MUST be read soon pile.
Brief Plot Summary (limited spoilers)
Hawksbill Station is a penal colony in the Cambrian era for political dissidents of an oppressive but humane future Earth. The penal colony is only for men for fear that if there were women they might reproduce causing drastic consequences for Earth’s timeline.
The most disturbing aspect of the novel is the fact that time travel is a oneway process. The dissidents which are sent back are unable to ever return to their time. The prisoners occasionally receive supplies, games, and tools through the time machine (called the Anvil) but are unable to communicate their needs to the “present.” These factors create intense isolation and claustrophobia.
The landscape of Cambrian Earth adds to the claustrophobia. The land is barren rock. The colony, consisting of prefabricated plastic huts, is perched high above the ocean. The ocean is teeming with trilobites and other marine animals. The inhabitants of the station supplement their diet with trilobites and one prisoner even starts a scientific study of trilobites despite the fact that he’ll never be able to communicate his knowledge to Earth’s present.
The barren landscape, the disconnect from the present, the absence of activities to occupy oneself, the absence of women/family/lovers drives many of the inhabitants into despair. A large percentage of the population are considered insane and have to be cared for by the rest.
One of the few remaining sane men is the one-time revolutionary Jim Barrett, the crippled 60-year old leader of the colony. It is from his perspective and flashbacks that the novel unfolds. We learn how Barrett became the leader of a revolutionary movement on Earth that never “did” anything but instead devolved into sessions of endless arguments over ideology. We learn about Hawksbill, the corpulent inventor of the time machine and his one-time role in the revolutionary movement. We learn about Barrett’s intelligent lover, Barrett’s rivalries, his eventual imprisonment. Even Barrett’s depressing flashbacks provide relief from the claustrophobia of life in Hawksbill Station and Barrett’s daily routine of caring for the disillusioned and insane.
The Hawksbill Station portion of the “plot” concerns the arrival of the mysterious Law Hahn who lacks any firm political beliefs (unlike the other prisoners who were sent to the colony because of their radical stances).
I won’t spoil any of the mystery but the end is spot on and unforced.
Jim Barrett is one of best realized characters I’ve ever come across in science fiction. He’s old enough that he can reminisce about his youth. Likewise, he derives his will to live from caring for the others in the colony, a role that is challenged by his recent crippling foot injury. Barrett’s flashbacks to his revolutionary past reveal the emptiness and aimlessness of his previous life and despite being severed from the world he was born in he is able to find purpose, however hollow it might seem, in his position as leader of the penal colony.
The tone of the novel is one of intense isolation and claustrophobia. The characters struggle to find meaning and purpose in their world and many completely are unable to do so. One writes a book on trilobites, another (verging on insane) attempts to construct a portal with his mind to the “present”, others cry endlessly in bed, another (Barrett’s old friend) lies drugged by the doctor all day in his hammock.
An underrated classic.
Silverberg at his best. I highly recommend Hawksbill Station to all sci-fi fans.