Trustys & Trilobites

Silverberg has written a short story and a novel length version of this story. This is a review of the short story. It’s a very interesting look at the group dynamics of a prison population. The inmates were all political dissidents who were incarcerated for advocating for one form or another of communism. The government, despite being lethargic politically, was very innovative scientifically and developed a one-way time travel device called the Hammer & Anvil. Rather than go to the trouble of putting political prisoners to death, it banished the males to the Cambrian era, slightly over one billion years ago. Women, of course, were banished to a period a few million years away. The prison had been extant for over thirty years. Everyone there was a lifer because the Hammer only worked one-way; there was no going back to present day. At least one-third of the inmates had gone insane. Their nominal leader, a crippled, aging giant named Jim Barnett had managed, barely, to hang onto his sanity for the length of his twenty-year incarceration. He was the oldest surviving inmate, and cared for the others the best he could.

Conditions at Hawksbill Station were not deplorable. The government from our time, longingly called “Up Front,” sent back supplies, construction materials, literature and perishables infrequently, but never any women. The lack of women, the loss of purpose, the complete cessation of contact with family, and the monotonous diet of trilobites was just too much for most men. All of them knew that their times were coming; eventually they would all have some kind of break with reality.

One day out of the blue a new inmate was sent from Up Front. Lew Hahn said that he was a political prisoner and an economist, but he was very reluctant to talk about his revolutionary activities, his economic theories, or what was going on Up Front. Most of the inmates questioned Hahn and thought he was a spy, but Barnett wondered who he would ever report to, and thought he was just in a state of shock over his change in fortunes. But after Hahn was caught making notes about the Station and messing around with the Hammer, Barnett confronted him and asked him what he was doing. Hahn tried to evade the questions, but then gave in and admitted that he was a cop from the future…and he brought with him some hope. The government that had built the Hammer had fallen, but before it did it perfected a way to travel through time two-ways. The new liberal and maternalistic government was in the process of undertaking a survey of all of the former government’s prisons, Hawksbill Station included.

Silverberg painted a pretty convincing picture of a prison inmate population here, but I found it more refreshing that most. This crew was made up mostly of like minded men, communists and economic revolutionaries the lot of them, all of whom were middle aged. There was none (or rather, very little) of the usual violence, rape and black market activity that prison stories deal with. Barnett was not running a boot camp either, and treated the inmates like men. The population had also developed their own ways of communicating with each other, and their own rituals. The inmates were all friendly, and they have very few rules. The only rules of any consequence actually were that even if someone started to go crazy, you did not contradict what they said to you, and you did not remind them of what it was they had left back Up Front. Other than that, people were free to do whatever they wanted. It was amusing to see a libertarian society constructed by a bunch of old communists.

The final conflict in the story had to do with Barnett’s feelings about the opportunity to return home. He had become institutionalized over the course of his sentence, and feared the reintegration process. The novel picked up on this element a bit more than the short story, and actually the short story really gives it the short-shrift. I suppose Silverberg had to save something interesting for the book though. I love this short story, but the novel version is much better, and in my opinion is just shy of masterpiece level. Thematically the story is, like most good prison tales, about cruel and unusual punishment. It asks, even if you have decent motives (and here those motives were a reluctance to kill political prisoners) do you do evil by putting them in a remote location and forgetting about them? The answer to that question does depend somewhat on the facts of the situation. With an advanced enough technology you could put the prisoners in a paradise or a utopia. Hawksbill Station provided everything that the inmates there needed to survive, but it failed to provide what they needed to thrive, or to be happy. Of course, that generally is not the purpose of prison, and here the State did not put the inmates into the typical kind of hell-hole that men in their situations usually get left in. This is a grey area question for me. Putting aside the debates about political prisoners and whether they should have been incarcerated in the first place, can anyone say that the Station was any worse than a gulag? Or a North Vietnamese prison camp? Or Guantanamo Bay? I really do not think that it was. I’d certainly hate to be in that place, but it also could be much worse.

There is a new edition out now with both editions of the tale, so if you see that one, pick it up.

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