This longtime sci-fi buff has a confession to make: Some time travel stories leave me with a throbbing headache. Not that I don’t enjoy them, mind you; it’s just that oftentimes, the mind-blowing paradoxes inherent in many of these tales set off what feels like a Mobius strip feedback loop in my brain that makes me want to grab a bottle of Excedrin. Thus, it was with a bit of decided trepidation that I ventured into Robert Silverberg’s The Time Hoppers, but as it turns out, I needn’t have worried. Silverberg is amongst the most lucid of science fiction imaginers, and here, even when setting forth those inevitable temporal paradoxes that come with all time travel stories, he does so clearly, and in a way that gave this reader no problem whatsoever.
Isaac Asimov, one of the giants of the field, has been quoted as saying “I made up my mind long ago to follow one cardinal rule in all my writing — to be clear,” and Silverberg, who collaborated with Doc Ike on three occasions, has always seemed to follow that dictate as well. Expanded from his 1954 short story “Hopper,” The Time Hoppers was released in 1967, a watershed year for Silverberg. (After editor Frederik Pohl induced Silverberg to return to writing sci-fi full-time, the author began to write with a maturity and imaginative depth not seen in his prolific work before; a more literate quality, with greater emphasis on characterization, sex, drugs and adult themes, came to the fore.) The book was originally released as a Doubleday hardcover; just one of six Silverberg sci-fi novels that year, in addition to eight “naughty bawdy” novels, six sci-fi short stories, and 11 books of nonfiction. That’s over two books a month, if you’re counting!
In The Time Hoppers, the year is 2490, and the Earth has become an overpopulated, overdeveloped mess. The bulk of humanity — at least, those with a Class 10 rating and below — lives in tiny, windowless, one-room apartments with their small nuclear families. The reader meets Joseph Quellen, a Class 7 by dint of his position as a “CrimeSec” in the Secretariat of Crime, who lives in the impossibly widespread city known as Appalachia. But Quellen, despite his midlevel bureaucratic job and PRIVATE, single-room apartment, harbors a criminal secret — he is guilty of having built for himself a private abode in the heart of the Congo, which he reaches from his place in North America by using a “stat” (think of the transporters on “Star Trek,” a program that in 1967 had just barely started to impress). Quellen’s lot becomes even more problematic when he is given a new assignment by the unseen High Government: track down the means by which the “hoppers” have been escaping the troubled present by emigrating into the past.
For the previous five years, some unknown person has enabled some 60,000 folks to flee backwards in time; the High Government wants the emigration ended, and the time travel device in its own hands. But what will happen if someone who is already in the historical records as a hopper is prohibited from going back? Wouldn’t that conceivably change, alter, possibly topple all future history? And meanwhile, as Quellen prosecutes his investigation, his Class 14 brother-in-law, Norman Pomrath, decides that he is at the breaking point, and begins to look for a way to abandon his family and … hop…
Of the two dozen or so Silverberg books that I have read so far, The Time Hoppers is the one that reminds me most forcefully of a novel by Philip K. Dick (although it is dedicated to Michael Moorcock AND although Silverberg, of course, is a much better, more disciplined writer than Dick). As in a Dick book, here, Silverberg shows a great empathy for his “little people,” for their miserable plight in an environment over which they have zero control; as in Dick’s The Simulacra, top figures at the head of the government are revealed to be (very slight spoiler ahead) fictitious constructs, and even mechanical in nature; as in so many Dick novels, recreational drug use has become not only legal, but encouraged (Norm is a devotee of the “sniffer palaces,” where he inhales a hallucinogenic gas in order to escape from his troubles).
The Time Hoppers is also a trove of ideas that Silverberg would develop more fully in his later work: Peter Kloofman, the 132-year-old Class One governmental head, who has stayed alive only via multiple organ transplants, is but a warm-up for the Genghis II Mao IV Khan character in 1976’s Shadrach in the Furnace; the problems of extreme overpopulation would be dealt with more fully in 1971’s The World Inside; the idea of thrusting political prisoners into the past, only briefly touched on here, would find a fuller expression in that same year’s novella “Hawksbill Station” (which first appeared in the August ’67 “Galaxy” magazine), and via an even grander exposition in the 1970 Hawksbill Station novel. Silverberg makes his Earth of some five centuries hence a colorful one, adding such sci-fi touches as those stat devices, earwatches, quickboats (think: airborne buses), spray-on garments for women, the inevitable visiscreens, some truly ingenious bugging devices … and a listing of some of the atrocious crimes of the future. We are also made privy to a bizarre religious rite that Quellen is forced to attend by his galpal Judith: “social regurgitation.” Without going into the yucky details, let’s just say that this manner of communion would probably prove a big hit with modern-day bulimics!
The Time Hoppers is complexly plotted and moves at a breathless pace. It is filled with well-drawn secondary characters, and — as is the case with all great sci-fi — practically every page boasts some interesting idea, unexpected plot development, or imaginative detail. Silverberg, in this book, even manages to conflate the centuries-old legends of the Princess Caraboo and Kaspar Hauser (possible time travelers?). Quellen makes for a sympathetic and likable lead character, and the reader will cheer at his ultimate fate as the story wraps up marvelously. Finally, a time travel novel that didn’t leave this reader with an aching head, despite the many paradoxes brought up. (Perhaps I will not be so leery when I dive into Silverberg’s 1969 time travel novel Up the Line!) The Time Hoppers is an almost perfect novel; I could discern only one flub by the author, and that involves a hopper going back in time from 2490 to the year 2051, and reflecting that he had gone back 449 years; that should be 439 years, of course. But this mistake can easily be forgiven, as the hopper later ponders the fun he’ll have thinking of 2490 with his fellow émigrés, and thus gets to deliver the novel’s single most memorable line: “We’ll reminisce about the future.”