Thursday, April 18, 2019

"Hawksbill Station" by Robert Silverberg

I’m a new arrival to the school of Robert Silverberg. I read The Book of Skulls in 2005 and I’ve made a point to read at least some Silverberg every year since. A few weeks ago I found a TOR Double—No. 26—that featured “Press Enter” by John Varley on one side and Robert Silverberg’s “Hawksbill Station” on the other. The TOR Double contained the text of the original story published in Galaxy in 1967. The story was expanded and published as a novel in 1968. A novel I have not yet read.
Hawksbill Station is a penal colony used to segregate political dissidents from the general population. It is much like the Soviet gulags of the mid-Twentieth Century, except there are no guards, no fences and no returns. A wall of time, two billion years long, separates Hawksbill and the society that created it. It is on an Earth that has yet to witness its fish crawl from the sea. The camp’s only connection with the future, what the men call “Up Front,” is a device called the Hammer and Anvil—a time machine that only operates from the future to the past. And it is the lifeline of the small penal colony. It is where the new inmates, and the meager supplies arrive from.
“Hawksbill Station” is an intriguing story. It alters the Cold War prison tale into dystopian science fiction. While the model of the prison is clearly based on the Soviet-style gulag, the story is as much about capitalism as it is about communism. The idea: oppression is oppression no matter its wrappings. With that said the politics of the story are less important, much less, than the story itself. The setting, as dark and desolate as it is, has a beautiful surreal sense—picture an Earth with no mammals and no flora inhabited by trilobites, a wild ocean, and several dozen men.
The story is only 86 pages in mass market, but Silverberg, with a sparse and wonderfully simple prose, is able to create both the world and the characters in a detail that many writers are unable to do in three- or four-hundred pages. He makes the characters, all of them, sympathetic and likable. The antagonist is two billion years from where the story is told and is really nothing more than the shadow of a bogeyman.
“Hawksbill Station” is the real deal. It is a science fiction story that tells something of who we are as a culture, and more importantly, what we are as individuals.  It is a truly excellent story.


Todd Mason said...

The novel is excellent as well. And it was the first not Inarguably Classic adult sf novel I read (the IC novels were by Wells and Edward Bellamy's LOOKING BACKWARD). I read the novella version not Too long after in the first Harry Harrison/Brian Aldiss BOTY, BEST SF 1967. (Harrison enjoyed giving the year the stories were from, and Putnam Berkley went along with that, though they soon shrunk the year to very small digits on the covers).

Mathew Paust said...

Not an sf aficionado, I have read a little now and again. Couple years ago I read a book about Silverberg, called Traveler of Worlds: Conversations with Robert Silverberg. I found it fascinating and did a review, which I've hyperlinked to the title. After reading this I bought a collection of 23 of his stories. I read most of them, I believe, and enjoyed them, but did not review the collection. Looking Backward sounds like I would enjoy it, as well. I'll see if I can find a Kindle version. Thanks, Ben, for reminding me of Mr. Silverberg's writing!