fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsUp the Line by Robert SilverbergUp the Line by Robert Silverberg

Robert Silverberg was clearly a big fan of sex back in the late 1960s, and I’m sure he wasn’t the only one. But in Up the Line, he absolutely revels in it. He doesn’t miss a chance for his (all male) characters to fornicate with women at every possible opportunity both in the future and the past, in dozens of exotic time periods in Byzantium, Constantinople, Rome, etc. The act may be as old as time, but that doesn’t stop Time Courier Judd Elliot from trying to bed his great-great-great grandmother Pulcharia with a lusty enthusiasm and complete disregard for all social taboos that have existed for millennia. Sure, it’s generally a serious no-no in society to screw your ancestors, but when she is as saucy a sex-kitten as Pulcharia, well who can blame Judd? At least that is the irreverent tone this book tries to achieve, billing its main character as the “Tom Jones of Time Travel.”

The plot of the story is quite intricate and promising. Time travel is discovered in the early 21st century, and quickly develops into a thriving tourist industry. Time Couriers take small guided tours to see the most momentous moments in history, including the Crucifixion, Sermon on the Mount, assassinations of JFK, Abraham Lincoln, Julius Caesar, famous ancient wars, etc. There is even an exclusive tour of the Black Death for those perverse types who revel in mass death (don’t worry, they’re inoculated against the plague).

So our intrepid hero Judd Elliot gets recruited into the business and initially goes along with a senior Time Courier to learn the trade. There are of course many rules that need to be followed. 1) Keep interactions with people of that time period to a minimum, to avoid altering history and thus the future. 2) Avoid the numerous other time travel tourists, since major historical scenes are extremely popular. 3) Do not impregnate any women or kill off anyone, since you might alter the flow of history. That includes committing retroactive suicide by knocking off your direct ancestor. 4) Be ultra-careful to avoid creating multiple versions of yourself by carefully timing the shunts up and down the line of history.

Well, as you can imagine, every one of those rules gets violated (no pun intended) over and over, and the time paradoxes start to pile up as the story proceeds, with multiple versions of different characters crowding various time periods, sometimes recognizing each other and sometimes not. And one of the biggest problems the Time Service faces is rogue Couriers who decide to profit by stealing various artifacts and coins from the past and selling it to future collectors. Or trying to set yourself up as a Wall Street tycoon by cheating the markets. Or just making your own kingdom in the jungle like Colonel Kurtz.

So the Time Service has another branch of time travel cops called the Time Patrol. Their job is to hunt down rogue time travellers and retroactively fix all the mayhem caused and restore the “real time line” back to its original state. The key conceit in Up the Line is that time lines can be repeatedly edited and “fixed” retroactively, so that you can go back in time and, for instance, kill your great-grandfather, but you will not instantly disappear while you are back in the past. You may have erased your future self by altering the time line, but your physical time-traveling self remains. That means that history can be altered, such as going back and killing Hitler in the cradle, but the Time Patrol routinely goes up and down the line to monitor the flow of history, and since they are outside of time they retain memory of the “main time line” and if they find alterations they will relentlessly pursue the offender, go back in time, stop them from their meddling, and punish them in the future (including termination). This keeps the Time Patrol very busy.

I didn’t pretend to understand the ever-increasing number of time paradoxes and conundrums that Up the Line presented. My approach to time travel books is that time travel is impossible, so whatever mechanism the author makes up doesn’t matter as long as the story is convincing and entertaining. Silverberg carefully explains how it is that the Crucifixion can have literally thousands of time tourists attending, disguised in period attire, including the same Time Couriers bringing group after group, without overwhelming the actual people of the time or blowing their cover. It’s pretty implausible, but still a fun idea to imagine. How many of these tourists are in disguise watching the grassy knoll, in the theater with Lincoln, in the Coliseum cheering the gladiators, watching the battle of Gettysburg, etc.?

This book could have been a lot of harmless fun if it weren’t for all the incessant sex. I’m not a prude by any means, but there is such a thing as too much! Every couple of pages Judd was getting horny and rarely if ever did he have trouble satisfying himself. The women in this book are eager to rip off their clothes, jump in bed, and pleasure the male characters for hours. Seriously? This goes beyond sexist to just plain ridiculous. I’m sure that Silverberg was having fun trying to push the boundaries of the newly-liberated times, but it feels very dated and embarrassing to read now.

Up the Line reminded me of the books of Piers Anthony that I read back in junior high school (Xanth, Apprentice Adept, Incarnations of Immortality), and Robert Heinlein’s creepy tributes to mother-love, Time Enough for Love and To Sail Beyond the Sunset. I blundered into those books as an innocent teen, and have regretted reading them ever since.

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Refund, please!

Silverberg is a venerable SF grandmaster and I’ve recently been enjoying his best works from that period. Who would have thought he could deliver schlock like this? In a world where Kim Kardashian and Nicki Minaj are household names, where sex is just another commodity peddled by popular culture, I still felt disturbed by the shameless raunchiness of Up the Line. There are some passages that have to be exposed to the light of day to be believed, and this book was published in 1969! Here are some dreadful examples (there are worse, actually) which made me cringe:

She didn’t seem like my great-great-grandmother. She was lush, fertile, abundant. It was lust at first sight. I felt a familiar tickling in the scrotum. I longed to rip away her clothing and sink myself deep…

To ease my rage and anguish, I dropped down on my bed and rammed myself into her. She was a little startled, but began to cooperate once she realized what was up. I came in half a minute and left her to be finished off by…

But there came a point where Silverberg simply crossed the line and decided that pedophilia is a legitimate subject matter for a humorous sci-fi romp, which made me want to throw up. I will quote it here but keep in mind I do NOT condone it in any way:

Just then, a sleepy and completely naked five-year old girl came out of one of the bedrooms. How sweet, I thought, that saucy little rump, how clean little girls always look when then they are naked, before puberty messes them up.

What more can you say? This ruined the whole book completely for me, and I returned it to Audible for a refund (promptly granted). Silverberg is a prolific and accomplished writer, but Up the Line may be one of his worst moments. Consider yourselves warned!