My dear sisters and their children have left, and the house is still and empty...and I can't find the book I was meaning to write about today. I don't think one of them would have taken it...
But in any event, I had a back-up--Hawksbill Station, by Robert Silverberg (a novel, published in 1968, that superseded a 1967 short story; UK title The Anvil of Time). I've chosen the cover image that won the "least likely to make me want to read the book award." It was a wide open field.
But fortunatly I didn't have to read that particular edition; I read it in the anthology of three Robert Silverberg novels/novellas, compiled in Times Three (Subterranean, 2011). Much more appealling, although it wasn't the cover that lead me to reading it. I've been thinking that in order to be a truly knowledgeable person viz time travel books, I should read some of the sci fi stuff written back in the 1950s and 1960s for grown-ups. And here I am, with Hawksbill Station.
Silverberg imagined a revolution that had thrown down the Constitution of the US in the 1980s, with a counter-revolution springing up to oppose the new dictatorship. The government has come up with an ingenious solution to the problem of prisoner storage that allows them to pat themselves on the back for not executing people. Instead of being killed, prisoners are sent back in time. Far, far back to the pre-Cambrian era.
In this temporal prison, at a time when there is no other life on land beside the prisoners, a band of political dissidents (all male) tries to stay sane. Time travel only works one way, so there is no hope for any other future. The leader of the prisoners, a man named Barrett, tries to keep things functional, while around him the aging population falls apart.
And then a new arrival, a young man who doesn't fit the profile of political dissident, appears, and everything changes.
The story alternates between Barrett in exile, and Barrett's past as a revolutionary. The pre-Cambrian part is interesting social anthropology, interesting character studies, interesting concept, and, all in all, thought provoking. Silverberg's descriptions of Barret's struggle to survive and stay sane in this beautifully described, horribly alien environment appealed much more to me than the kind of unoriginal and somewhat sexist account of him as a young, and not that sympathetic, organizer of volunteers for the cause.
If it had all been in the pre-Cambrian period, I would have thought it great stuff (I think). But having to read words like this: "The Revolution tended to attract the sort of girl who couldn't wait to get her clothes off, so that she could prove that her breasts and thighs and buttocks made up for the deficiencies of her face" (page 123), I just couldn't feel that fond of the story as a whole. And I wasn't convinced that the story of Barrett in the "present" (which I found kind of boring--nothing much happens, if you don't count the naked girls) added anything to the character arc culminating in his final role as the leader of Hawksbill Station.
So the uneven balance between the two frames of reference didn't work for me, and the sexist bits repelled me, but I shall keep reading the sci fi classics anyway (two more to read in this particular book before it goes to its final bookshelf home, which is an incentive).