Hawksbill Station: A grippingly well-told yarn

fantasy and science fiction book reviewsHawksbill Station by Robert SilverbergHawksbill Station by Robert Silverberg

Although it had been over 45 years since I initially read Robert Silverberg’s novella “Hawksbill Station,” several scenes were as fresh in my memory as if I had read them just yesterday; such is the power and the vividness of this oft-anthologized classic. Originally appearing in the August ’67 issue of Galaxy magazine, the novella did not come to my teenaged attention till the following year, when it was reprinted in a collection entitled World’s Best Science Fiction 1968. Silverberg later expanded his 20,000-word story to novel form, which was duly published as a Doubleday hardcover in October ’68. (So why then does the author’s “Quasi-Official Web Site” list the book as a product of 1970?) It has taken me all these years to finally catch up with Silverberg’s fix-up novel, but I am so glad that I did. To my delighted surprise — and I only say “surprise” because the author has long expressed his preference for the shorter of the two creations — I find the novel even better than the beloved original; a work that expands on the scope of the novella while adding character depth and reams of background to its wonderful central plot.

In both works, political prisoners of the near future are dealt with in a startling manner by the totalitarian government that had come to power in the U.S. in, um, 1984. By dint of a new time travel device that can send objects in only one direction — backwards — the government, starting in 2005, has started dumping its hard-core agitators 1 billion years in the past; i.e., the later Cambrian period, when Earth’s surface was bare rock, devoid of soil, plants and even primitive insects, and the only life-forms to be found (invertebrates, trilobites) were in the sea. Thus, we meet some of the 140 men marooned in the eponymous Hawksbill Station, on the edge of what will one day be the Atlantic; a group of men slowly going mad, and held together by 60-year-old Jim Barrett, a 20-year veteran of the station. The men’s lives are shaken one day by the arrival of a new prisoner, Lew Hahn, a youngish man who seems to oddly have little in the way of revolutionary fervor about him. But Hahn’s later actions about the primitive camp leave the other inmates even more puzzled about his presence in their midst….

The novel-length Hawksbill Station differs from its antecedent in three main areas: (1) The novel has much more in the way of detail concerning the men and about life at the station; (2) the fate of the character Bruce Valdosto is completely different in the two works; and (3), and most significantly, the novel is three times as long as the novella largely because Silverberg has added numerous chapters showing us Barrett as a teenager, as a young revolutionary in the NYC of 1984, and as a cell leader, leading up to his arrest in 2006 and his “trial” shortly thereafter. These flashbacks on Barrett’s part — paradoxically, they are more in the nature of billion-year flash-forwards for the reader — give us a much clearer knowledge of who Barrett is, and it is all fascinating stuff for those who, like me, had only been familiar with the shorter story. I have always been a sucker for novels with strong parallel plots, and Silverberg here gives us two doozies, brilliantly and suspensefully interlarded. Just as we are left with a cliffhanger situation with Barrett back in the Cambrian, the author brings us forward to modern times; just as things are growing tense for Barrett in the scary, dystopian days of 1994, we are back in the Cambrian again. This really is edge-of-your-seat storytelling, the result being a grippingly well-told yarn that is almost impossible to stop reading. Personally, I found the central plot device — political prisoners marooned at the dawn of time — a fascinating one, and Silverberg peppers his novel with any number of wonderful scenes. In my favorite, which I well recalled from 45 years ago, Barrett watches a trilobite crawl out of the sea, wonders if this could be the great ancestor of all future land animals… and then wonders what would happen if he were to stomp on it and kill it. The end of all future life on Earth’s surface, perhaps? The author’s descriptions of the Earth of a billion years past are quite convincing, and Barrett himself — a man of great inner strength, despite being a cripple due to a recently smashed left foot — is a terrific and likable central character. As usual, the author even manages to give us a prescient peek at some future technology; hence, the phone that Barrett wears on his ear while walking the city streets in the late 20th century! And in one moving section, Barrett tells us “a society has to obey its own morality, even when it’s defending itself against possible enemies”; surely, words it would do well for us to remember today!

Hawksbill Station, great as it is, is not a perfect book, and Silverberg, uncharacteristically, manages to make a few flubs during the course of the novel, and all as regards dates. He infers that “Minus One Billion, Two Thousand Oh Five A.D.” is earlier than “A.D. Minus One Billion, Two Thousand Twenty-Nine,” whereas it is of course 24 years later. He tells us that Barrett was arrested in 2006, 10 years after his girlfriend Janet had been taken by the authorities; that should be 12 years. And he mentions that Barrett had spoken to Edmond Hawksbill about his time travel invention six years before his own arrest; that should be eight years. Given that Silverberg is usually such a perfectionist with these kinds of little details, these gaffes come as even more surprising; one almost expects them with the notoriously careless Philip K. Dick. Still, these minor slips would in no wise interfere with any reader’s enjoyment of this great tale. Be it the more insular and claustrophobic novella or the expanded novel, wonderful entertainment value is guaranteed. And here’s another thought: In one section, we learn that all the female agitators of the early 21st century have been sent to a different time era; namely, the Silurian period, when only the most rudimentary plants and insects covered the Earth. Howzabout THAT for a much-belated sequel? The ultimate women-in-prison story! Pretty please, Mr. Silverberg….


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SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough's finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a "misspent youth" of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship -- although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century -- and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror... but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle "ferbs54." Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club....

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3 comments

  1. I read this novel in the collection “Times Three” which Sub Press put out a couple of years ago. This is one of my favorite Silverberg stories.

  2. Sandy Ferber /

    Yes, it sure IS a fun read, isn’t it, Kat? And interesting to compare the original novella with the expanded version. Don’t you agree that a sequel with the WOMEN’S prison camp would be a great idea?

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