Note: this review is for the novella “Hawksbill Station” not the novel expansion. If you are interested in the novel, I recommend Joachim Boaz’s review, here.
Soviet forced labor camps, located in the remotest depths of Siberia, define the word ‘exile’. As the titles (let alone content) of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago and Gustav Herling’s A World Apart imply, life in the work camps was more than one degree separate from civilization. Not just murderers and thieves worked to the death in extreme conditions, the camps were likewise home to political dissidents and subversives, which in conjunction with the remote isolation, created a unqiue environment consisting of a much wider variety of personalities than the average penitentiary in the West. Far from Siberia (quite literally) yet similar in demographic, Robert Silverberg’s superb 1967 novella “Hawksbill Station” takes a look at one such prison camp.
Time travel the main plot device (though thankfully not one whose technicalities are delved into in the least), a totalitarianist government uses a time machine to ship its convicts millions of years into Earth’s past into the Cambrian era. A one way trip, the men (and it’s only men) are provided the basics of life—shelter, rudimentary technology, etc.—and are left to fend for themselves, no hope of returning to the present day. Mostly radical intellectuals and political subversives, they resist the urge to resort to primitivism, maintaining as relatively a civilized society as their meager means allow. Battling inner demons, Jim Barrett is the informal leader of the misfit group that has slowly assembled over the years. With his embracing view, his social glue is a big part of why their time-lost colony still functions. But with the arrival of a new prisoner, a young man calling himself Law Hahn, the relative stability of Hawksbill Station threatens to crumble.
Not One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovish in science fiction form, Silverberg focuses on the psychological and existential as much as the physical and social concerns of being trapped in a land devoid of life with no hope of ever returning to family, friends, cities, animals, and all other normal facets of life, again. His prose driftingly austere, the reader gains a feeling for the desolation of Barrett’s situation and the emptiness of Cambrian Earth from what is written in the lines as much as between them. Likewise, the efforts of the other men to retain their sanity in such a hopeless situation gain equal poignancy from the subtle words. Thus, while I assume the novel drives the stakes of this agenda all the deeper, the novella captures a pertinent mood from word one.
But it’s the conclusion of “Hawksbill Station” which speaks loudest. I will not spoil matters save to say Silverberg beautifully utilizes the time travel device to make an interesting statement about the internal and external perspectives a person has, or may have, of being “in prison”. A grand statement, in fact, the novella transcends its science fiction label to become something more—much like Brian Stableford’s Man in a Cage. Both come highly recommended.