Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Hawksbill Station by Robert Silverberg

Bear with me a moment. I'm going to throw up a couple of covers for this book, in addition to the one that graced the copy that I read:

All right. Take a look. I read an article on the whole Sad Puppies affair that included a complaint by the guy behind it that was pretty much precisely "you can't judge a book by its cover anymore." The idea being that when you look at strong men on the cover, you might actually be getting suckered into reading a book about gender, or sexuality, or politics, with the insinuation that this would never have happened in the past.

As almost always happens, this type of claim is accompanied by a vast historical myopia. The Golden Age that you remember is almost always more complex. Well, more complex than anyone tends to think. I'm a historian, I get to say things like that, because they're true.

While science fiction is not something I'm a particular historian of (my own expertise lies in masculinity in the 19th century), I read a lot of old science fiction. So when I read this book around the same time I read that article, I knew I had to connect the two.

Look at the covers above. They may not tell you everything about the book, but if the Sad Puppies narrative is to be believed, they'll be a straightforward adventure yarn, instead of harbouring something more subversive. You hear that, Silverberg? You guys didn't write anything more complex than that, right?

Wait, what? These books are about the criminalization of left-wing dissent, and the exiling of left-wing would-be revolutionaries to the Pleistocene, on a one-way time travel trip? They're jam-packed full of references to Marxism, Trotskyism, debates over non-violence versus violent revolution, and the tactics and long-term strategies of the revolution?


Well, I'm shocked, shocked to hear that old SF might have been a teensy bit more complex than we thought.

Wait, no I'm not.

This book focuses around Barrett, one of the former prime organizers of the resistance against the syndicalist government in a post-democratic America. (Not anarcho-syndicalism, just syndicalism. With a strong touch of dictatorship.) He's spent decades now in the Pleistocene, trying to keep the men who have been exiled with him sane and functional in a world without hope, where they are forever divorced from the world they left.

And entirely without women, which is explained by the ruling government being afraid of any breeding in the past, and the potential creation of a second strain of human that might mess up the timeline. There's supposed to be a women's prison for revolutionaries too, but it's several thousand years away.

Because there are no women, there is a fair amount of homosexuality in the Pleistocene, as that's all the option there is for sexual partners. This is brought up early, although men are warned to keep it out of sight to avoid upsetting others.

The book jumps back and forth from the prison at Hawksbill Station (named after the physicist who made time travel possible), and Barrett's entry into the underground, and subsequent journey through it. The only female character that turns up is his revolutionary girlfriend, and there's some digression into how revolutionary women would be more attractive if they washed more (I sigh, but I do believe that even revolutionaries will continue to think that's the most important thing, given what I know of various protest movements of the 1960s and 70s). It turns into a tragic love story, as she is taken in one of the earliest waves of arrests, and Barrett's inability to find out what has happened to her haunts him.

There are also interesting thoughts about why people join revolutions, what experiences might have brought them to it, and the kinds of ego that might turn someone into an enemy as quickly as they became a friend.

On Hawksbill Station, a new man comes through, but he doesn't act like all the others - no obvious revolutionary dogmas, for one. So, why is he there? What does the future have in store for the past? What happens when you can literally ship dissent off to a pre-human Earth?

Try to get that from the covers.


  1. The first cover, on top:

    It presents us a grey monotone picture with a silhouette of human being in the middle. The face is drawn with sharp, crude lines, and does not posses any kindness to it. Typically, authoritarian futures are depicted through darkness. There is no choice for the individual, only what is expected of him regardless of his or her own wishes. While the opposite of an authoritarian future is usually a cloudless blue sky or a splash of vivid colours. You know, limitless choices and things to look forward to.

    Thus based on the first cover, I would expect to read something related to a dystopia. The only splash of colour on the cover - orange - is the colour of fire, a force of destruction. Therefore when a human being is drawn with flames, it must be a story about either an individual rising above to destroy the dystopia, or the individual struggles onwards under the yoke of control by the authoritarian future.

    Side note, in politics, the colour orange is often associated with liberal values. So, if we google what year the book was published in and in what country, we can with somewhat ease determine what political views would have been considered liberal at the time.

    The second cover, on left:

    "Time travel is a one way trip... and this is the far, far end of the line."

    That line on the cover does not really paint any overly optimistic expectations for the story. Clearly, the characters on the cover are stuck in the past without any hope. Therefore, the man crouched before the giant purple trilobite is not doing it to inspect the beast, not to mention how his face remains void of any elation caused by the discovery. There is a crutch on his right side. Hence he must be an aged man of limited mobility before the sea and a beast, at the far, far end of the line. I have seen subtler hints towards the desire or willingness to commit a suicide.

    Alternatively he could be inspecting whatever is left of someone who committed a suicide, or possibly he could be the culprit lingering on a murder scene.

    As for the younger man running at the background, it seems that he is running towards the older man. Hence, the younger man is showing some interest towards the other. Does he represent a fleeting hope in a doomed world?

    The third cover, on the right:

    On the first glance I thought that three spheres on the background were three moons. A guess that the group of men standing on a cliff are explorers on a brand new world. Yet upon closer inspection the largest of these 'moons' seems to be physical continuation of the mountain at the background, or at least perched at the mountain top. The two others could be similar round rocks perched at the tip of a mountain.

    I do not know how well you know your stories of Ancient Greek, but it seems to be a reference to Sisyphus and his task. Gods punished Sisyphus with a task to roll a stone to the tip of a mountain, only to have the stone roll down for all of eternity. An endless and hopeless task. Hence the possibility that these men have successfully rolled three massive round stones up a very jagged mountain is kind of telling; they have nothing better to do.

    Hence the men standing at the edge of the mountain might not be gazing for the vast world around them, they might be ready to jump down. Crossed arms are usually a sign of discord.

    Now, with another glance, the largest of the 'moons' could be that Hawksbill Station mentioned on the cover. Strangely asymmetric dome construction, but who are we to judge the architecture of the future? Which would make the sphere on the left the Sun, and the one on the right the Moon. Except that doesn't make sense. If the one the left is the Sun, how could it lit a full Moon on the right?

    So yeah, I am going with three round stones at the top of a mountain. I am not expecting anything pleasant, even if the background has blue skies.

  2. Oh, it seems I was not that far off with my expectations. Yay for me!