Looking Backward involves one Julian West, hypnotized into a sort of suspended animation in 1887 which lasts till he is awakened in 2000, to find a rather utopian social-democratic world, a post-scarcity society where want and warfare have fallen away, and worldwide equality (as the sequel would be titled) and harmony are reigning rationally and compassionately. West basically gets the tour of the world at the cusp of the millennium, with the rationalized food distribution, equitable wages and retirement at 45 if desired, and such...the Bellamy was a Huge bestseller in its time, and one of the great popularizers of the democratic socialist vision, helping along both the Populist and Socialist Party causes around the turn of the century in the U.S., and perhaps also the fellow-travelers in the rest of the Anglophone world (albeit the Fabians in the UK and other co-founders of Labour had their own texts). Among the more minor bits of technological advancement it predicted, almost inarguably more successfully than its political aspirations over the longer term, was the wiring of every household that so desired with high-fidelity telephonic audio reception of classical music...which in the pre-Marconi days, is a pretty damned good anticipation not only of radio but of the internet. (Considering I was reading the book in 1975 or '76, that was still anticipating the nearly universal access to the internet that phones allow today, and often in places otherwise not so blessed with cutting-edge technology or even particularly safe drinking water...domestically and abroad.) I read it, in a Magnum Easy Eye edition from Lancer Books (purchased for a quarter--I would buy it for a quarter--at the W. T. Grant's discount department store, where they had great tables of 3 for a dollar and 4 for a dollar books at all times in '74-'76, most of the cheaper ones Lancer mass-market paperbacks that mobbed-up Lancer might well've made fall off their own trucks. The 33c items were often textbooks and other oversized paperbacks and my parents and I often sorted through those, as well), while sitting on my grandmother's porch in the middle of coal country, in Beckley, West Virginia, her husband my grandfather having been apparently murdered in the mid '40s via an engineered cave-in, reportedly by someone who envied him his supervisory job in the mines...certainly the struggles for unionization and better conditions were hard to forget when there, with, if I'm not mistaken, at least a few of my cousins working the mines at least briefly...oddly enough, my uncles did Any damned thing they could to Not work in the mines. Though one, who became a police officer, was also murdered in the late '60s by someone who came up behind him in a local bar. The legacy of the Bellamy had continued, at least to some extent, to inspire readers even down to the present day...about the time I was reading the original, the radical among US sf writers with the most high-flying resume, Mack Reynolds (among other work, he had written speeches for his father, Socialist Labor Party candidate for President Verne Reynolds)(SLP founder Daniel De Leon having famously been such a doctrinaire Marxist that he called out Marx himself for deviationism and selling out in the 1880s, the SLP being the first socialist party to take the name in the US) was writing and publishing his own updates of Looking Backward and Equality.
Hawksbill Station involves time travel as well, in this case the use of time travel by a fascist future US regime to strand its political prisoners in the Cambrian era, where they are seen as not being able to cause much mischief--the colony of rebels is a stag affair (I vaguely recall the oppositional women being stranded in another remote era) and the prison colony, a sort of gulag, is provided with the barest necessities by what is apparently a one-way-only means of transport from the future. The prisoners are mostly relatively intellectual sorts, no Conrad villains nor Russian Social Revolutionary bomb-throwers (the former were based on), who are basically trying their best to make a tough and boring exile less insane-making...the protagonist, the "uncrowned king" of what nonetheless amounts to an anarchist co-operative, is particularly interested in the study of the trilobites which are the most common sort of animal life in the nearby ocean waters...our prisoners are essentially the only dry land animals extant. No jailers are necessary, beyond the ones back in future U.S., sending back the occasional prisoner or supplies via the time-travel reception device referred to as the Hammer. Among the most memorable imagery in the book is that of the protagonist contemplating the animals in the littoral waters at his feet, he the alien in their world (and somehow not carrying bacteria to ravage the world of the time nor ravaged by the native bacteria and other microorganisms). The new prisoner sent back at novel's beginning, Hahn, turns out to not be what he claims to be...and the book (without spoiling too much) has a less dystopian resolution than it might. This one was a book, in the 1970 Avon paperback with the ridiculous cover (presumably the artist was given the title and little else to go on), that I was given, after I picked it up at my grandmother and step-grandfather's house in Vermont...it might've been part of my uncle David Wheeler's personal collection, left behind when he enlisted (if you'd like it back, David, I'll happily provide you another copy), or it might well be one of the items Ivan Wheeler had fished out of the dry goods disposal work he did...rubbish collection rather than trash collection, as he made the distinction, in working for himself after leaving the granite polishing sheds in Barre, Vermont, that had left him with permanent black stains on his hands. The unions there had been purged of most of their radicals by the 1940s, and would consistently push for higher wages while making no efforts to curb the horrible working conditions in the polishing sheds (silicosis and too often tuberculosis being a way of life) and related quarry work. The old Socialist Labor Hall in Barre was in the '50s a small packing plant for vegetables. Meanwhile, the novella version of "Hawksbill Station" had been kind of a turning point work of fiction for Robert Silverberg; he'd more or less moved on from writing sf by the early '60s, emphasizing both faster-buck writing of work he wasn't too proud of, and increasingly doing some widely-respected nonfiction writing in anthropology and other sciences that sometimes went beyond popularization to original research (he would receive the occasional letter addressed to Dr. Silverberg in those years, despite having left school with a BA). While Silverberg had kept a hand in the sf/fantasy world, most visibly and regularly as book reviewer for Cele Goldsmith Lalli's Amazing: Fact and Science Fiction Stories (as the title-form had it in the early '60s), he hadn't been publishing much new fiction for several years till Frederik Pohl enticed him to contribute to Galaxy and its stablemates, and while "To See the Invisible Man" (Worlds of Tomorrow, 1963) might've been the first strong indication of the New Silverberg sf and some fantasy which he would contribute over the next decade and more, the 1967 novella version of "Hawksbill" (which Silverberg apparently prefers to the novel, though the novel is fine) was I believe the first of the new crop of stories to get a lot of attention, as well as his longest work in the field aside since one less-well-received novel, The Seed of Earth, published in book form in 1962 (after Pohl had published a heavily cut version in Galaxy that year). Despite Silverberg being a libertarian-leaning conservative for the most part, the tenor of the times was leftwardly radicalizing even the likes of Karl Hess and Gary Wills in those years, and Silverberg's portrait of his rebels is notably more sympathetic than, say, the theoretically more left-leaning Donald Westlake's vile calumny with the "Curt Clark" novel Anarchaos (1967) (perhaps Westlake was on an Al Capp sort of trajectory).
For more of today's books, please see Patti Abbott's blog.
|Sol Dember's cutesy cover illo is for the Zelazny story.|