Saturday, October 24, 2015

Review of "Hawksbill Station" by Robert Silverberg

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.


  1. I wonder how much is actually different in the novel version.... Are you tempted to read the novel and compare?

    1. I'm stuck in the middle. The novella feels complete. There is a definite arc, and the the underlying concept is expressed in whole. On the other hand, having more room to develop the characters and setting could give that concept more impact...

  2. Hi Jesse

    Thanks for this review and also the link to Joachim's review of the novel. I read the novel this summer so I was interested in hearing there was a novella. I have noticed that a number of SF novels start in shorter lengths and are expanded so I did want to compare a few. I found the novella in one of my anthologies and finished it a few days ago. It was an interesting experience. Having read the novel I found the novella a bit short, although the editor Harry Harrison notes they could have put in three more short stories instead, but Hawksbill Station is a major story by a major writer and that it is Silverberg's best story and demanded to be used. When reading the novel this summer without being aware of the novella I found it a tad long although it is only 176 pages. I have a bit of a problem with back story so that may be part of the issue. Also I loved the Cambrian setting so much, it almost became a character for me that I wanted more of that. Both versions are excellent reads and having read both I am not sure which I preferred but it was an interesting exercise.

    While I do not comment a great deal I really enjoy your blog.

    All the best