Hawksbill Station – Robert Silverberg (1967)
This is an expansion of an earlier novella, but is nevertheless still a fairly short novel.
The basic premise is that a time-portal to the past has been established. As there is no possibility of return, the US Powers That Be have set up two points in the remote past, one in the late Cambrian Era and the other some 250 million years later. As there is no other use for such a thing, the government have decided to send political prisoners back through time along with the materials to build their own prison camp. The males are sent to the earlier camp and the females to another set millions of years later.
Barrett, now in his sixties, has become the de facto leader of the prisoners at what has become known as ‘Hawksbill Station’. The land is a desert of bare rock, apart from occasional moss. The only life is in the sea, and consists of invertebrates such as proto-squid, trilobytes and other exoskeletal beasties.
The men of course are in various stages of mental breakdown and Barrett is doing his best to hold it together.
One day, the men hear the sound of The Anvil (the time travel mechanism) starting which means that something or someone is being sent down the line from the future.
It is a new prisoner, a young man named Hahn who seems reticent to discuss his past and also appears to not know much about the state of affairs pertaining to the world of 2029, which he has just left.
Silverberg, as usual, focuses on characterisation, employing a dual timeline structure which switches between Hawksbill Station and the story of how Barrett came to be sentenced to being sent back in time.
In the future from which Barrett has been exiled, a revolution has taken place, seeing an oligarchy of ‘syndicalists’ taking charge. Inevitably the syndicalists evolve into a government who become the establishment and are, if anything, worse than those who were overthrown. Barrett becomes part of counter-revolutionary group, occasionally visited by the scientist Hawksbill, the man responsible for time travel technology.
It’s not a major Silverberg work. One could describe it as a series of psychological studies, since the main characters, with the possible exception of Hahn, are skilfully sketched. Jack Bernstein, for instance, someone whom Barrett had known since childhood and who had always insisted on being called Jack, decides to join the establishment and reverts to his real name of Jacob.
Silverberg likes to include Jewish protagonists, unsurprisingly, but is obviously not afraid to turn them into unpleasant characters.
Where the novel fails is in a lack of tension. Despite the dual timeline there are not enough surprises or false leads. Hahn’s purpose seems fairly obvious from his arrival. Barrett’s life in the future was of course leading toward his arrest and his trip to the past, and one would have thought that Silverberg might have thrown in some kind of twist which meant that Barrett ended up in Hawksbill Station for reasons other than the reader expected.
It’s interesting, but hampered by its brevity and its lack of twists and turns.