A science fiction Grand Master gets it wrong about the future

Hawksbill States gets lots of things wrong about the future.

Some would say science fiction writers are notorious for getting things wrong about the future. After all, there are few examples of important developments in science or technology that any science fiction author can credibly claim to have predicted. Yes, Arthur C. Clarke famously foresaw communications satellites in 1945, nearly two decades before the first one was launched. Yet the frequency with which that prediction is mentioned in science fiction circles makes it clear just how far off base the genre has been about the future. And here, to prove the point all over again, is Grand Master Robert Silverberg in 1967’s Hawksbill Station.


Hawksbill Station by Robert Silverberg (1967) 166 pages

@@@@ (4 out of 5)


A novel about time travel

For starters, the novel is about time travel. It’s set in the opening decades of the 21st century, so we seem to have missed that particular achievement. It’s “the world of rocket transport and artificial organs and visiphones.” And “each year produced its new marvel: weather conditioning, color telephone picture transmission, tridim video, organ transplants, instafax newspapers, and more.” Admittedly, Silverberg got some of these things right. But others are entirely fanciful. Taken as a whole, they wouldn’t gain him a spot on the program at the World Future Society annual conference.

A science fiction writer gets its wrong about the future of American politics

However, other than time travel, the technological marvels depicted in this novel are peripheral to the story. Hawksbill Station is mostly about American politics. And, unfortunately, Silverberg strays even farther from reality in depicting the political scene even less than a decade after he wrote the book. He posits a Panic in the 1970s that sets off a “Permanent Depression.” And this, in turn, leads to a right-wing revolution that overturns the Constitution and brings an authoritarian regime into power. In the novel, a resistance movement that purports to call for revolution to overthrow the regime is, according to one key character, “so far to the left that we’re right-wingers, and we’re so far to the right that we’re left-wingers.” Now, what do you think might have happened if the Weather Underground imagined it might work with the Ku Klux Klan?

It’s worth quoting a long exchange from the novel to illustrate even more clearly just how far off the mark the story strays.

One character explains, “We believed in a kind of — well, capitalism with some government restraints.”

“A little to the left of state socialism, and a little to the left of pure laissez faire?” the protagonist responds.

“Something like that.”

“But they tried that system and it failed, didn’t it, in the middle of the twentieth century? It had its day. It led inevitably to total socialism, which produced the compensating backlash of total capitalism, followed by collapse and the birth of syndicalist capitalism. Which gave us a government that pretended to be libertarian while actually stifling all individual liberties in the name of freedom.”

If you can find any reflection of those circumstances in American politics over the past half-century, go to the head of the class.

An interesting depiction of Earth half a billion years ago

Politics and flawed futurism aside, Hawksbill Station is an interesting piece of work for its depiction of the Late Cambrian epoch, 541 to 485 million years ago. Yes, half a billion years ago (which Silverberg rounds off to an even billion years). Because Hawksbill Station is a tiny colony perched on the rocks on the shore of the future Atlantic Ocean. There, the most hardline revolutionary activists have been banished for life by the regime in power in America. And Silverberg does portray the world as geologists and paleontologists have said it must have been. So, though he’s wrong about the future, he gets it right about the distant past.

For further reading

Previously I reviewed Robert Silverberg’s Hugo-Award-winning 1972 novella, Nightwings (A science fiction master imagines a far future Earth) and his 1969 novel, Across a Billion Years (A science fiction master imagines a uniquely advanced alien civilization). I liked both books much more than this one.

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