In the comprehensive introduction to the new reprint omnibus, Times Three, which collects the time travel novels Hawksbill Station (1968), Up the Line (1969), and Project Pendulum (1987), Robert Silverberg describes his interest in time travel as a "fascination," and then corrects himself: "obsession, I think it is fair to call it" (p. 9). Fair indeed.
Silverberg has accumulated such a large body of work throughout his nearly six decades in the field that the subset of his stories using time travel in a central way would be more than sufficient for The Best Time Travel Stories of Robert Silverberg (see the end of this review for recommendations). The collection at hand, while a little more restrictive in terms of the number of stories than this hypothetical beast, probably accomplishes just as much as a wider selection would.
The reason is the sheer virtuosic diversity in tone, style, and overall engagement with the conceits and consequences of time travel. Readers who, like me, are returning to these three works rather than discovering them for the first time, may find that the experience itself resembles a form of time travel. As such, I was a bit surprised that my initial impressions as a teenager, lacking in any critical grounding, have mostly stood the test of time (or failed it, if your point of view is that one’s aesthetic sensibilities should evolve as one enters adulthood). Those initial responses go something like this: Hawksbill Station was dour, though the evocation of a remote, almost entirely lifeless past was hard to shake off; Up the Line was raunchy and unexpectedly poignant, handling some adult themes probably a little over my head; and Project Pendulum, while ultimately moving, was challenging most of the way, and at times disconcerting.
A first-time reader today will probably see things in a different light. Hawksbill Station, as Silverberg explains in the introduction, is now not only a time travel novel, but an alternate history as well, since it describes the government of what was the then-future of the 1980s and beyond as a totalitarian regime, one that we know did not come to pass. Up the Line, specially in its early chapters, is so drenched in the lingo and culture—meaning, specifically, the drugs and sex—of the late sixties that it may almost seem like a hippie parody à la Austin Powers: quite shagadelic. Some readers will find much of it sexist, an assessment I will revisit later on; but no matter through what lens they view the novel, readers who stick with it will find it is a richly textured science fiction work, considerably more serious than it may initially seem. Finally, Project Pendulum is more cerebral, driven by form almost as much as by theme. It was originally intended for teenagers (Silverberg does YA!) but is curiously the most abstract of the three.
And now, by means of transitioning from this preamble to a more detailed discussion of each work, let me offer an attempt to schematize the use of time in each novel:
(i) Hawksbill Station – Time as prison.
(ii) Up the Line – Time as fetish.
(iii) Project Pendulum – Time as context.
The title Hawksbill Station refers to a penal colony in the Pre-Cambrian past, to which political convicts are sent on a one-way journey by a near-future Orwellian government. (This concept was later reused by Julian May in her popular Saga of Pliocene Exile series). Though published only one year earlier than Up the Line, this novel, expanded to novel length from a Hugo- and Nebula-nominated novella, is more limited in scope and less playful in its narrative effects. Sixty-year-old Jim Barrett, the central character, was
past all bitterness . . . resigned to his fate, tolerant of eternal exile, and so he could help the others get over that difficult, heart-clawing period of transition, as they came to grips with the numbing fact that the world they know was lost to them forever. (p. 27)
This cheery depiction suggests one of two paths for the novel's character arc; Barrett's belief system will turn out to be correct and his function will be the same by the end of the story as it was at the outset; or he will turn out to be wrong, and the "fate" to which he has resigned himself will not turn out to be definitive. The arrival of a new prisoner, Law Hahn, obvious custodian of certain secrets, quickly signals the truth of the second option, and that Barrett's world is in for a shake-up.
The narrative alternates, perhaps somewhat mechanically, between Barrett and the prisoners stuck in the early Paleozoic and the story of how he and his associates became political dissidents to begin with in the 1980s. This second plotline is less successful than the first, principally because it doesn't quite gel with the main strand in terms of tone. Silverberg uses the word "claustrophobic" in the introduction, and it's hard to disagree. But the depiction of political idealism, endless anarcho-socialist-revolutionary debate and the evolution of a totalitarian system in this secondary strand tends to dilute the powerful claustrophobia of the prisoners stuck in the past. Every time we are brought back to the "present" the narrative provides a measure of relief, allowing us to escape the men's predicament. (I say "men" because there are no women in this particular antediluvian colony; there's a prison camp for women too, but it's located in the Late Silurian, so that both camps are isolated by a few hundred million years.) The "present" of Hawksbill Station is the remote past; and the narrative past, closer to our present, seems less science-fictionally interesting by comparison. There are a few nice extrapolative touches for a book written in 1969, such as the notion of using computers to disseminate information electronically, or the concept of wireless phone headsets ("the telephone he carried behind his left ear bleeped its signal", (p. 99)). The flashback scenes do make Barrett and some of his cohort more well-rounded, but at the cost of softening the total narrative punch. "Exile to Hawksbill Station was tantamount to a sentence of death" (p. 34), we are told early on. Confronting this death is what makes for terse, lean drama; understanding the crimes that led to the punishment seems ancillary. (Fortunately, we still have the original novella, in which the political plotline doesn't exist, so readers can judge for themselves which treatment they find more successful.) Also, the love interest, Janet, is dispensed too quickly, and the resolution of the main storyline feels a little rushed.
I've left the aspect of the novel I find most interesting for last. It follows directly from that confrontation with imprisonment in the past I just mentioned: the prisoners' varying degrees of instability as they crack under the pressure of their predicament. This is where the novel's SF core resides; the deliberate use of time as a barrier, the ultimate impasse separating beings from who and what they long for. In the case of Hawksbill Station the time interval separating the men from their world and loved ones is a billion years or more, which may seem like a far-fetched notion. But we don't need time travel to understand the notion of separation by time, for we experience it in our daily lives whenever something perishes or is extinguished in the past. Death, through this SF lens, can be viewed merely as our inability to retrieve the past. If we could travel back in time, we might never fear losing a loved one, for they would always exist in their "present" and we could always visit them there. (Charles Yu explores this use of time travel, among many others, in How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe (2010)). The prison Hawksbill Station, viewed in this light, becomes the ultimate metaphor for mortality.
The realization that the phenomenon which imprisons Barrett and his men is the same phenomenon that causes us grief when we are temporally "severed" from loved ones makes their plight not only relatable, but tragic. Observing their disintegration under the crushing, overwhelming weight of such loneliness provides its own grim fascination. Some men, like Charley Norton, the "doctrinaire Krushchevist with the Trotskyite leanings" (p. 27), seek refuge in the political idealism of their past. Others, like Ken Belardi, become nihilists. Some, like Valdosto, suffer irreversible psychotic breakdowns. Altman, for instance, has gone crazy and spends his time building a woman out of sticks and dirt.
The underlying suggestion, perhaps, is that meddling with the normal flow of time can only make matters worse and further unravel our psyches. I'll come back to this idea in my comments on Up the Line, which seems to amplify and complicate the idea.
The order of the stories in the new Subterranean Press omnibus hardly seems accidental. Up the Line is the centerpiece in terms of overall complexity and emotional strength (as well as in length, though all three novels are short by today's standards). It is a hugely ambitious, enormously fun, sly, paradox-peppered piece that chronicles the time-tourist trade and all its perils—specializing in Byzantine history.
The protagonist, Jud Daniel Elliott III, may be one of Silverberg's most memorable (though not necessarily sympathetic) characters. To understand his journey, consider, for a moment, the opening line of a different Silverberg time travel story:
All had been so simple, so elegant, so profitable for ourselves. And then we met the lovely Selene and nearly were undone. ("[Now + n, now – n]")
Replace the plural narrators with Elliott and Selene with Pulcheria Ducas and you have a good idea of where Up the Line will take you. (I won't give away whether the "nearly" above still applies or not.) If this sounds like a reduction of the work into unabashedly romantic terms, I agree; though it is more frequently described in the critical literature as a picaresque or satire, it also has something in common with a romantic bildungsroman. But how can I claim that it is romantic, you object, with all the drugs and fornication mentioned before? The answer is that all that profligate sex-making is gymnastics, an invocation of physical prowess and performance, rather than a statement of metaphysical connection. Early in the novel, Elliott's test of courage—which is perhaps a stand-in for what we might call a rite of adulthood in our society—consists of using time travel to witness himself having sexual intercourse. The sexual act of Elliott's society, when compared to our own normative standards, has been devalued. In fact, we can argue that one of Elliott's motivations for enrolling in the Time Courier service in the first place is precisely the search for passion that is all but missing from his promiscuous life. By the third chapter he has confessed that he has "a simultaneous attack of restlessness, Weltschmerz, tax liens, and unfocused ambition" (p. 174). Not surprisingly he is looking, perhaps naively, for mystery and awe. About a third of the way into the novel, in a delicate foreshadowing of the desensitization to come, we realize that the experience of time travel itself will not, ultimately, satisfy him:
You know how it is. Eventually I got to see even those great ones [Arcadius, Justinian, Constantine, Alexius]. But by then I had seen too much up the line, and though I was impressed, I wasn’t engulfed with awe. (pp. 230-31)
Before meeting Pulcheria, Elliott's life, no matter how viscerally exciting, is not arousing. But after his first encounter with her he is transformed:
She was all the women I had ever desired, united into one ideal form.
I stared at her without shame.
She stared back. Without shame.
Our eyes met and held, and a current of pure force passed between us, and I quivered as the full surge hit me. (p. 302)
Talk about sparks. There's just one catch to this instant attraction: Pulcheria is one of Elliott's ancestors. No good; not only is trans-temporal intercourse considered a time-crime and, as such, likely to incur the Time Patrol's swift punitive action (the Patrol keeps the Time Couriers in check), trans-temporal ancestor intercourse is doubly verboten. Elliott has been warned: "Beware love in Byzantium!" (p. 219). But he's helpless after meeting Pulcheria, and though his relationship with her doesn't go far, it causes him to be fatally negligent with a tourist in his group who decides to go rogue. This sets in motion a terribly complicated, delightfully frenzied sequence of time-shunts and counter-time-shunts on the part of Elliott and his friends, who in their ill-advised activities end up generating multiple temporal copies of themselves. Really not good.
This and other time paradoxes abound, often identified by means of comical names. To give you the flavor: The Paradox of Temporal Accumulation, the Ultimate Paradox, the Paradox of Transit Displacement, the Paradox of Discontinuity, the Paradox of Duplication, and so on. The first refers to the accumulation of time traveling crowds at a fixed point of the time continuum; if visitors from all time periods keep flocking back to an important event, eventually the time travelers will outnumber the local population. This may be one of the most significant time-concepts in terms of the plot's structure, since Time Couriers are having to forever plan visits to pivotal events in a way that doesn’t overlap with earlier temporal versions of themselves or those of competing guides. In contrast to these complicating paradoxes, there are certain other rules that simplify the game: for instance, there is no way to travel into the future (something also specified early on in Hawskbill Station), and there is no physical displacement involved in the jumps. All of this makes it clear that Silverberg has thought out all the possible permutations and consequences of the proposition of time travel well before the story is underway. It also serves to play fair with the reader from the start, rather than using a new type of paradox to resolve the plot's labyrinthine structure.
The above might give the impression of madcap comedy, and as mentioned before, the novel does start off it an exaggerated, trippy tone. Nipples are tweaked; joints are consumed; we learn that the timers run on phlogiston, no less, etc. But after about the first quarter of the novel, by which time Elliott has gone on several training missions and become certified as a Time Courier, things become more serious.
Part of the realism and increasing soberness stems from the historical detail. Silverberg is lucky to have a protagonist with such a keen interest in Byzantine history, since it allows him to render fictionally some of the turning moments in Byzantium's history and thereby lavish us with detail. This is not entirely surprising, since this period of history is one that Silverberg has also treated in various nonfiction outings. (It has even appeared in at least one other time-travel story: see Skein's visit to the Haghia Sophia in "In Entropy’s Jaws.")
A second element which contributes to the mounting tension is the revelation of how damaged many of the Couriers are. Capistrano, who befriends Elliott, is undeniably self-destructive; he keeps records of his ancestors so that one day he can erase the right one and so eliminate himself from the time-line. And Themistoklis Metaxas is the one who first quips to Elliott that "You haven't lived until you’ve laid one of your own ancestors" (p. 242). There are other indications that the psyches of those drawn to the Courier profession (and even many of the tourists) are inherently unstable.
Brian Stableford believes that in Up the Line "multiversal chaos" inevitably follows the premise of time machines, and thus time travelers "simply have to become accustomed to that existential plight" (Science Fact and Science Fiction: An Encyclopedia, "Time Travel," p. 534). The preoccupation with the destabilizing effects of time travel on human minds and morals presents an area of overlap with Hawksbill Station. But I think it goes beyond an existential plight—something that can be appreciated by considering the prominence of the theme of incest in the novel.
This is where I’d like to suggest that Up the Line explores the fetishism of time. The possibilities of time travel (such as ancestor incest, collecting rare forbidden items, leading a second life in the past, etc.) become, for many, activities of irrational fascination or obsessive devotion, often causing them suffering. But beyond this more straightforward meaning of the word fetish, we can also resort to Sigmund Freud's original explanation in terms of the universal drama or "family romance" through which a child's mind reaches adulthood. A very quick recap: for reasons related to a male child's sexual desire for his mother and the fear of his father, his pre-rational mind "disavows" or eliminates the sight of female genitals and sexual differentiation. Later, in adolescence, the experience of orgasm can reactivate this earlier disavowal, now casting it into contradiction with the logical knowledge that women don't have male genitalia. The belief is thus pushed into the irrational, unconscious part of the mind, and leads to a "splitting of the ego." In this framework an object of fetish represents a symbolic displacement of the disavowed mother's penis. The fetishist knows that the mother's penis doesn’t exist, but irrationally pursues a belief in it nonetheless through fetishist behavior.
I believe that this helps to explain and relate two elements of Up the Line:
1) Time-travel, by its seeming impossibility, tends to call into question the notion of causality, and thus identity. Because of this destabilizing effect, it becomes an extension of the Oedipal mother's disavowed penis, and thus inspires fetishistic behavior in those who engage it with frequency.
2) The "sexism" inherent in the text, beyond merely the surface-level imposition of exclusively male point of view characters, is a by-product of this phenomenon.
To elaborate on the second point: Freud's original Oedipal conception of fetishism applies only to men, and critics have pointed out how this allegedly "universal" drama thus identifies women only negatively, or by what they lack, namely the penis. I would argue that this novel does much the same. Recalling the claim that Up the Line is sexist, I would say that while so, more importantly, it is fetishistic.
Edgar Chapman, in his reading of the novel, makes the argument that Elliott's final fate is the result of his "lack of moral seriousness" and of having displayed "a frivolous view of the past." As a result, "the paradoxes of time travel . . . remain secondary to comedy and social satire" (The Road to Castle Mount, pp. 98-99). My reading suggests a reversal of cause and effect with respect to this argument; the time-paradoxes are the cause of the lack of seriousness with respect to history, not a secondary element to Elliott's perspective, and the satirical elements are therefore secondary. Time travel itself renders history "un-serious"; those most likely to move through it will hence seek out other rewards, such as the fetishism mentioned before. Elliott's morals are consistent with those of his society, and he would be irrational to treat the past with reverence; his fate is the result of the indulgence in the fetishistic nature of time itself.
The sexual and satirical elements certainly aren't out of place in "mid-period" or "second phase" (mid-1960s to mid-1970s) Silverberg, though the case for fetishism I've presented here isn’t articulated explicitly in the text. The third work of this time travel triad is from Silverberg's "third phase" (post-retirement to the present) and represents a significant shift in its approach to time travel.
In Project Pendulum twins are shot forward and backward through time, balancing a time-pendulum that swings logarithmically, so that the leaps cover ever-vaster distances. The time-pendulum goes at least as far back as A. E. van Vogt's "The Seesaw" (1941), which Silverberg acknowledges in the introduction (see here for my comments on van Vogt's story). Here's how it works in Project Pendulum: one twin moves forward while the other moves backward, and then they reverse. To illustrate: Eric's first jump is 5 minutes into the past (-5), Sean's 5 minutes into the future (+5); Eric’s second shunt is +50 minutes, Sean's is -50 minutes, and so on, all the way to "Time Ultimate," somewhere around 5 x 1013 or 95 million years out, at which point the swings should begin to reverse, hopefully returning the twins to the present. Eric is a paleontologist and Sean a physicist, so they are both professionally invested in the project in different ways. The novel methodically alternates between their viewpoints and pushes us one jump forward (or back, as the case may be) per chapter. The overall effect is a heady, fragmentary, sightseeing tour of the entire cosmic past and future; imagine yourself being granted access to a library where every shelf represented a different historical period, but you could only spend a few minutes flipping through the pages of each book. We glimpse many inventive wonders but rarely have the time to interact with them or internalize our experiences.
Despite the challenge of the premise this novella was originally intended for a younger audience, which may account for the reduced stylistic flourishes of the prose. I won't go so far as to call it chilly, but it is the most relentlessly visionary and the least conventionally affective of the three books under consideration. The main reason is that Eric and Sean are not particularly easy to differentiate for much of the way. What are their personal backgrounds, I asked myself; with whom do they have relationships, what are their hobbies, etc.? The first extended revelation of a youthful memory doesn’t occur until about halfway through.
The main focus, pursued without abatement, is the twins' immediate experiential present. About a third of the way in we encounter the words: "Everything in balance. Everything symmetrical" (p. 395). This almost takes on the weight of a metaphysical dictate throughout, and readers who are expecting some cataclysmic event to upset the balance will be waiting a long time. Silverberg's interest here doesn't seem to be to make explicit the chaotic, logic-defying, psyche-debilitating nature of time travel. Gone is the angst of being imprisoned by time, as in Hawksbill Station, or the drive to fetishistic appreciation through paradox, as in Up the Line. Rather, this novella uses a constrictive set of parameters as a launching pad for an excursion that reveals time as a vast, incomprehensible process of transformation; a force that continually rearranges the context (social, historical, ethical) of all the phenomena we encounter. Readers who read this book last will appreciate a couple of passing admissions of past treatments, though: early on, for example, Eric is struck by the "knowledge that time stood between him and his brother like a sword" (p. 389), and Sean reflects that "there wasn't anything logical about time-travel in the first place . . . It gloriously defied all the laws of cause and effect" (p. 393). Later, in the year 11,529 AD, Eric experiences an absurdist, Kafkaesque descent into vast tunnels in which time visitors await clearance to visit Upper Earth; one of the few overtly satirical episodes.
Throughout the incessant leaps the twins are, by design, more spectators than participants. They realize that the "past is fluid! The future is yet unborn!" (p. 412) but nothing much jeopardizes them in any serious way. There is a dreamlike sense to the whole process of their time-swings. In general the narrative is heavily descriptive and remains detached, rather than offering the twins' innermost reflections on their experiences. The final pages are the most emotionally climactic, perhaps as a result of the pent up emotions throughout and the bond forged by their unique time travel pendulum. But the lingering sensation is that our present social values and sources of worry (environmentalism, etc.) are so dependent on our specific time-period, so relative to our position in the universal library, that they are all but arbitrary. The final insight seems to be that is the sharing of our experiences of an intrinsically meaningless present that makes the experiences significant.
From the above, and from our survey of these three markedly varied works, we can't conclude that Silverberg has a specific attitude or use for time travel, but rather that he will engage the theme as suits the particular needs of his chosen story.
But we are left with one possible definition of literary time travel: that group of stories which gives meaning, either through negation or affirmation, to the word unhappen (as in when one time-displaced version of Elliott tells another "The good part is that we're going to unhappen all of this" (p. 362) in Up the Line).
In a video interview on time travel Silverberg voices the opinion that it is essentially fantasy. Recent theoretical physics might challenge that contention, in fact arguing for time travel's lack of inherent impossibility. (Granted, some might counter-argue that contemporary theoretical physics, with all its speculative extravagances, is a form of fantasy.) But for all intents and purposes we could do worse than to believe it is impossible. After all, if time travel cannot be realized, there's no risk that the timeline will be undone, and our memories unmade. That's a good thing. These three classic takes on time travel should never be allowed to unhappen.
By the 1980s Silverberg's preoccupation with time travel was apparent enough to have resulted in at least one critical analysis dedicated exclusively to his work in this sub-genre: Andrew Gordon’s "Silverberg's Time Machine", Extrapolation 23, p. 345-361, Winter 1982.
The following are all recommended for fans of time travel, Silverberg, or both:
- "Absolutely Inflexible" (1956)
- "Hopper" (1956)
- "Hawksbill Station" (1968)
- "In Entropy's Jaws" (1971)
- "(Now + n, Now – n)" (1972)
- "When We Went to See the End of the World" (1972)
- "Many Mansions" (1973)
- "Needle in a Timestack" (1983)
- "Sailing to Byzantium" (1985)
- "Enter a Solider. Later: Enter Another." (1989)
- Stepsons of Terra (1958)
- The Time Hoppers (1967)
- The Masks of Time (1968)
- Son of Man (1971)
- Letters from Atlantis (1990)
- Thebes of the Hundred Gates (1992)
- The Ugly Little Boy (1991)
Alvaro Zinos-Amaro grew up in Europe, mostly, and despite the advice of his betters earned a BS in Theoretical Physics and studied creative writing. He now lives in California. His fiction has appeared in Farrago's Wainscot, Neon Literary Magazine, and other online venues. His reviews and critical essays have appeared in The New York Review of Science Fiction, The Internet Review of Science Fiction, Strange Horizons, Foundation, and elsewhere. If you too are waiting for your own pet Aineko, visit Alvaro's blog.