Thriftstorm #9: Trapped in Time, Low on Morale

Artifact: Hawksbill Station, by Robert Silverberg, 1968.

Description: Hardcover book with stamps saying it belonged to a college library, and another stamp that says it is no longer the property of said library. It still has the plastic cover protector that library hardcovers usually have.

Source: Book sale, July 2017.


The science fiction field is deep and obscure enough that writers can have decades-long careers of good work and acclaim while being completely unknown to the greater readership. Robert Silverberg is such a writer. Born in 1935 and still alive as of this writing, Hawksbill Station is from a prolific period of his. Originally published as a short story in Galaxy magazine in 1967, the novel-length version – the version I have – is from 1968.

Jim Barrett, a revolutionary from a near-future version of America, is the leader of Hawksbill Station, a political prison camp a billion years in the past. “Setting up the Station had been a long, slow, expensive job,” explains chapter two; “the work of methodical men who were willing to go to any lengths to get rid of their opponents in what was considered the humane, twenty-first century way of doing it.”

Time travel here is powered by the Hawksbill Field, named after the mathematician whose equations power it. (The story stretches plausibility by having the eponomous Hawksbill be someone Barrett knew before his exile.) Hawksbill time travel only works backwards – an irrevocable banishment.

Hawksbill Station is from an era of sci-fi where the practice of giving specific dates to near-future events hadn’t yet gone out of style, and so we learn that America undergoes a constitutional crisis in 1984, and democracy gives way to totalitarian syndicalism. Barrett is a young idealist; he signs up for a revolution, but it smolders, rather than catching fire. After a long period of losing ground and allies, he is captured and sent him back to an era so distant that he, and others like him, will be no threat to anyone.

The book opens with Barrett surveying his empire of dirt. The time machine that brought him and other revolutionaries back isn’t the kind you can ride in, but rather a point-to-point transfer. Before the “out” point could be established, material was sent back from an uncallibrated transfer station in the early 21st century, arriving scattershot across time and space on the naked bedrock of the Paleozoic. Now, with their receiving device – referred to as the “hammer,” and paired naturally with a receiving platform called the “anvil” – the prisoners get regular shipments of food and irregular shipments of prisoners.

The prisoners are of various revolutionary stripes, or at least all the stripes that were well-known in 1968. One prisoner, Norton, a Bokshevik, wishes the wardens Up Front would send down someone other than a Bolshevik:

“This place is full of Bolsheviks,” said Norton. “We’ve got them in all shades from pale pink to flagrant scarlet. Don’t you think I’m sick of them? Sitting around all day fishing for trilobites and discussing the relative merits of Kerensky and Malenkov? I need somebody to talk to, Jim. Somebody I can really fight with.”

As is to be expected in a jail where the prisoners are also the wardens, the lines are starting to blur. With no way of communicating back to the future, the prisoners can’t ask for anything. Barrett watches in quiet sadness, propped up on a cane, his leg ruined by a rockslide during a salvage expedition. The technology exists to fix his leg, but their doctor has no hope of getting it. Madness is slowly spreading through the ranks.

There are no women in Hawksbill Station. Women are sent to a separate camp, many millions of years away. With no hope of a new generation, the men try to distract themselves from the prospect of their own extinction. Barrett tries to lead from a dignified remove: “Barrett and the others whose exiles had begun before 2014 had the privilege of occupying private dwellings, if they wanted them. Some men did not wish to live alone; Barrett, to preserve his own authority, felt that he was required to.” In his heart, he pines for a woman he met when he was new to the revolution, who was captured long before he was. Her name is Janet, and he doesn’t know if she’s alive or dead.

The relationship between Barrett, Janet, and their revolution forms the book’s B-plot, often told in alternating chapters between those set in the “present” of 1 billion B.C. Silverberg goes to great lengths to flesh out the American political collapse and the resistance it births, but those efforts don’t hang in the mind the way the Station chapters do. It’s mildly interesting to know that, following the upheaval of 1984, Chancellor Arnold rules for eight years and is succeeded by Chancellor Dantell. It’s spellbinding to imagine a group of prisoners looking up at Earth’s young moon, swaddled in its own salmon-colored atmosphere, unable to reach it.

Trapped in this surreal hell, with only their memories and some minimal supplies from Up Front, the prisoners are excited when a new member joins their ranks. This is the event that kicks off the book: A man named Lew Hahn arrives, saying he’s an economist and disbelieving that Hawksbill Station is real. “Temporal shock” is common to new arrivals, but Hahn talks about himself as little as possible. Barrett comes to distrust him, but doubts his own distrust. They’re trapped so far in the past that plants haven’t even come onto the land yet. It’s hard to execute a potential secret plan when you’re that far from anything.

Hawksbill Station, even expanded out to book form, is not long. My copy is 156 pages, terminating in a due-date slip that is completely blank. At its worst, Hawksbill Station is a chronicle of specific political fears that never came to pass. At its best, however, it’s timeless; a struggle for decency and civilization by those who fear they will never see either again.

Next time: The story of the Long Estate Sale.