Science Fiction Though the Decades

Friday, April 6, 2012

1968: Hawksbill Station (Silverberg, Robert)

Silverberg's BEST... which doesn't say much (3/5)

I've never liked Silverberg.
Regarding his novels:
The Alien Years (1998)... hated it.
The World Inside (1971)... hated it.
Those Who Watch (1967)... hated that, too.

Regarding his short stories:
The Red Blaze is the Morning in the New Legends Anthology (1995)... didn't care for it.
Hot Times in Magma City in the Year's Best SF (1995)... didn't care for it.
The Sixth Palace in Deep Space: 2 (1973)... didn't care for that, either.

So, while I'm able to stomach his short stories to a small degree, I've hated every Silverberg novel I've touched. To say "Hawksbill Station is THE BEST Silverberg ever produced!" is not doing the novel any favors. I've tried to like Silverberg's previous novels and stories, but I always end up disliking them. The same goes for Hawksbill Station... with plenty of praise doused upon it by Joachim Boaz, I was finally stricken with guilt at my distaste for Silverberg so I paid $2.50 for the book and read it. This one is for you, fellow blogger extraordinaire.

Rear cover synopsis:
"Exiled to an unborn Earth. They had fought a life-crushing 21st century dictatorship, and now they were witness to the dawn of life itself. Bitter witnesses. For they were political prisoners, exiled forever behind a billion year-high wall of Time--sent "one way" to the grey slab shorelines of a barren Earth before life had begun its long climb from the sea to the stars. A lifeless world was their prison, and there was no way back. And then one day the stranger came..."

In the solemn year of 1984 when the constitutional crisis ended with the syndicalist capitalists takeover ("McKinley capitalism and Roosevelt socialism" [69]), dissent sprung up in both mild forms and extremist forms. The protagonist Barrett was one of the milder mannered attendees, only attending the meeting to meet the girls. With enough time dedicated to the movement, Barrett eventually dedicated himself to the dissent. When his sleazy tramp-cum-girlfriend is arrested and unheard from in 1994, Barrett continued his mild dissent, albeit at a higher level with more responsibilities, against the undemocratic government until 2006, when he was arrested, detained, and interrogated. His life then on became dedicated not to dissent, but to living life in a barren landscape where only insanity and slow death are the enemies.

In a rather generically scripted future with automatic cars, 3-D television, supersonic air transport, population control, weather control, a Mars colony, and a lunar resort, the famous mathematician named Hawksbill has created a time machine (in operation since 2004). However, this machine is only reported to be a one-way trip... and what better way to use a time machine than to simply send political prisoners a billions years in the past to the late Cambrian era where troglodytes reign the seas and the prisoners can do no harm to the evolutionary ladder:

"The government was too civilized to put men to death for subversive activities, and too cowardly to let them remain alive and at large. The compromise was the living death of Hawksbill Station. A billion years of impassable time was suitable insulation even for the more nihilistic ideas." (36)

Come to the year 2029 and the population of the primordial prison stands at one hundred forty with one-third of the prisoners succumbing to their personal psychoses. Barrett has become the leader of the chronologically desolate gulag, one who organizes men to scout for mis-shipped crates of food and materials. Losing the full mobility of his legs due to an avalanche, Barrett has become more steadfast in his hopes for the Cambrian colony, a desire which supplants his treasonous aim of governmental reform. After a six-month absence of new prisoner arrivals, a stranger arrives at the camp. A self-pronounced economist with little more to say than a simple nod and a notably empty reservoir of knowledge regarding economics and political resistance, little warning signs are piquing the accusatory eye of Barrett.

Hawksbill Station has a very similar theme to Brian Aldiss's Cryptozoic, where Silverberg's was published in 1968, Aldiss's was published in 1967. Silverberg's novella Hawksbill Station was published in August of 1967 while Aldiss's was published in October. Which author was the first to pen the idea of a totalitarian government with time travel to primordial earth (Silverberg = late Cambrian / Aldiss = pre-Cambrian)? There are obvious similarities but also drastic differences.

There are two parts to this story which capture my imagination: the penal servitude in the desolate past (draw comparisons to Dostoevsky's Memoirs from the House of the Dead or Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago) and the form of government Silverberg calls syndicalist capitalism (as a registered Socialist, of course it would interest me). However, neither are described to a great degree and merely serve as a backdrop for the existence of temporally distant political gulag. Exactly WHY this sort of prison is BEST for the prisoners is left untouched (besides the single paragraph explanation above). And the descriptions of the barren lands of the late Cambrian period are glanced over, mentioning some soil here, lots of rock everywhere, and the expansive ocean just over there.

The actual Hawksbill Station plays second fiddle to the tribulations of Barrett. The novel alternates chapters from life at the Station and the rise of Barrett's career as a dissident. His shallow relationship with his girlfriend is a mere footnote of interest, as all female characters in Silverberg novels tend to be. Barrett's almost feigning interest in the revolution doesn't draw him out to be the powerful type, but his ability to handle interrogation, detention, ans sensory deprivation are admirable. Regardless of this, he is still sent back in time to live the remainder of his life on the expansive flats of volcanic rock, a home which he will reign as king over troglodytes and treasonous male revolutionary castaways.

A minor gripe in Hawksbill but my main gripe with the author (but noteworthy because of its recurring nature in everything Silverberg has penned) is his treatment of women as characters... or as cows: things to name and forget about minutes later, or as objects: things to place in the plot as mentions of rape (three times) and breasts (four times) can be wantonly written into the story (to garner interest from teenage boys?), or as a catalyst for excitement: pheromone-laden hussies to give climax to the plot (and conveniently, to the men, too). Call it his spice to every plot or his twist to every story, but it's the main reason I don't willingly read ANY Silverberg. Again, to say that Hawksbill is the BEST thing Silverberg has ever written is to say that everything else he has written in on par with or below a three-star rating, in my opinion.

With my gripe complete and my review of Hawksbill finalized, I can put to rest your (pointing the finger) one hope of turning me into a Silverberg fan. Sorry... but you have to admit that the plot synopsis I provided it quite good!

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