Up 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.
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!
From the writing of the second scene you quoted, I want to think that Silverberg is showing his character as selfish, not admirable. And if I remember what readers told me at the time, things don’t end well for Judd — so maybe there’s a moral lesson buried under all that “lush, abundant, fertile” sex-kitten flesh.
It’s so hard to tell, though. And Silverberg himself was a staunch champion of women’s right to have sex with him.
I never particularly wanted to read this book and your review has validated me. I also love your philosophy about time travel books. That is the perfect approach!
Great review, Stuart! I do so love my Silverberg, as you well know, but have not read this one…yet. It does sound as if the old boy went a little too far with this one. I have also heard that “Up the Line” is the author’s funniest book, though. Could all these sexcapades have been intended as humorous?
It astonishes me that Up the Line was nominated for a Nebula Award in 1969 and a Hugo Award in 1970. Good thing Ursula K. LeGuin wrote Left Hand of Darkness and took those awards instead!
It was the 60s/70s. And yes, it’s instructive that this type of book, and LeGuin’s book came out just about the same time. I think this shows how broad, dynamic and diverse the genre could (and can) be.
I too am glad that Left Hand of Darkness beat out Up the Line for the Hugo and Nebula. It would have been quite an embarrassment otherwise, something like Donald Trump getting elected president!
If Silverberg intended his raunchiness as tongue-in-cheek humor, then he should stick to his day job :-)
There was only one line that made me laugh (not exact quote, but the gist was): Character A: “That mother*******”, Character B: “It was an unfortunate (but accurate) choice of words.”
I read this ages ago and hadn’t remembered it at all beyond the Time Patrol concept and the book being “sexy” (as in lots of sex, not necessarily actually sexy) and relatively light. Based on this, I don’t think I’ll be adding to the re-read list
For some reason, I mis-read the first line of your review for a fraction of an odd second:
“I was clearly a big fan of sex back in the late 1960s.”
How very personal of you, Stuart.
And then, the next fraction of a second caught up with me.
I’ve never said I am opposed to sex, but I wasn’t yet conceived in the late 1960s. Either way, that would be over-sharing.
I love this comment, as Marion mentioned:
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.
As to your review:
I think you review excellent, and I was interested in reading what you had to say mostly because I saw a one-star rating next to Silverberg (and you just prompted me to read another book of his — Tower of Glass).
Sandy has been studying Silverberg too lately (and I mean studying while I’ve just been reading him), and perhaps he can answer this question: Silverberg wrote a TON of smut novels in a concentrated period of time. Was it during these years? If so, it makes sense (though does not excuse) his writing in that way in this novel. In fact, is it possible that what he wrote here — quite likely on the same day he was writing another of his smut novels — seemed to him LESS offensive than the other stuff he was writing? Perhaps he’d just made himself insensitive to this kind of writing from doing too much of it, as well.
None of it changes your one-star rating and the quality of the book, but it’s an interesting question to ask of Silverberg. I would ask it of few other authors, but Silverberg wrote so many stories and novels simultaneously for different publishing houses and magazines that I can see the scenario I described above as an accurate one for his situation.
Thoughts? Sandy? Stuart? Bueller?
I am not Sandy, Stuart nor Bueller, but I will weigh in. At the time this book was written, it would probably be considered offensive by the “mainstream” community, and Silverberg was trying to push some boundaries, but it wasn’t that offensive at the time, at least not to readers of New Wave.
From about 1963 to (roughly) 1981, sexually it was like Summer Vacation in America (and parts of Europe). Women has access to reliable and easy birth control, and every known STD at that time could be eradicated with antibiotics. In the US, there was a concerted rebellion against what was seen at the repression and hypocrisy of the 1950s. There was an attitude of experimentation and lots of drugs that reduced inhibitions.
Against this backdrop, Silverberg was trying to push the envelope and create a fictional society that was even more open and relaxed about sex, and there was almost no place left to go.
I think his smut novels were an influence here, but probably technically, which is why get get cringe-worthy passages like, “I rammed myself into her…” (Of course you did, because that sentence worked really well in last week’s book, Sex Kittens of Poughkeepsie.)
Silverberg also boasted that he could turn out a novel in a week. (Moorcock makes the same claim, by the way.) Was Silverberg giving his ideas careful thought and meditating on their impact on future readers? I’m guessing not so much.
Anyway, that’s my opinion.
Marion, thanks for shedding light on that free-wheeling period. I have also heard he was cranking out copious amounts of smut books at the time, so it was inevitable that some of that would creep into his SF output. And I still cannot fathom that readers would find this funny back then and not just plain awful. But it was a finalist for the Hugo AND Nebulas, which really says something about the mindset at the time. I would actually like to take a trip Up the Line and listen in the award deliberations. The same goes for Starship Troopers and Stranger in a Strange Land, two Hugo winners I cannot stand.
I also do not like Stranger in a Strange Land and can’t get myself to read Starship Troopers. I think part of it is how silly the name sounds to me.
By the way, I need to reread Left Hand of Darkness and Ursula K. Le Guin’s YA books and the other major book by her (title?). I’ve read them all and felt that they were all bland. And I have absolutely no idea why. Everybody who has tastes similar to mine seems to love Le Guin, and she keeps coming up as the GOOD writer in comparison to whatever writer has turned out a bad book at the same time.
I have a philosophy I share with my students: “If really intelligent people tell you a form of art or art object is of fine quality and you don’t like it, assume that the flaw is not in the art form or art object.”
It seems presumptuous to assume that because I don’t like Opera, then it must be all be crap, as I once thought. I now assume I have not learned enough to appreciate it. I might never learn enough. But, I no longer say that Opera is just bad. Consider: I did not like Jazz until I was in my late teens (I was eventually a Jazz DJ at two different college radio stations) and did not like Classical music in general until my late 20s. I also thought Genre fiction, like Crime fiction and SFF, was for the less intelligent: I now write for this site and teach a course on Crime Fiction. I also thought Comic books were a low form of entertainment and not an art at all. I now write comic book reviews for this site, teach comics in all my college courses, and even teach a course solely on comics.
So, I assume I’m missing SOMETHING when it comes to Le Guin. I wonder what it is. But one of my all-time favorite books that I keep next to me at all times is her translation, with wonderfully concise insightful commentary, of Tao Te Ching. She’s BRILLIANT! Why don’t I like her fiction?
But I’ve certainly been led to fall in love with authors I never would have if I’d continued to be a snob about SFF. Robert Silverberg, I must say, is now one of my favorite authors. He’s always got such interesting, fascinating ideas. I think I’m intrigued enough by your review here to read this book just because of how different it is from the books we usually read by him.
I’ve got at least one crime novel by him on my Kindle that I want to read (and perhaps review here since it is by Silverberg). But I also have been wanting to read one of his smut novels by way of comparison. Perhaps reading his one you’ve reviewed will be enough to satisfy that urge and put it to rest!
Sorry for all the rambling today.
I really appreciate your comments, here, Marion (as always). Your overview is enormously helpful to me. Since I was born in 1970 and since I didn’t really start learning about SFF as a genre until three years ago when I joined this site as comic book review editor and writer, I have no sense of what other SFF books at that time would have been like (not to mention actually reading them as they came out). I, of course, read SF and fantasy growing up and all my life (Lloyd Alexander and Wrinkle and time and C.S. Lewis and later Harry Potter), and I even wrote about Ballard’s High-Rise and Piercy’s cyberpunk offering in He, She, and It, but I was looking at them as single novels and what they were saying not as part of a “genre” but comparing them to Ayn Rand and Iris Murdoch and Jack Kerouac and even Toni Morrison and Italo Calvino.
Anyway, I think your explanation helps me get a better feel for what Silverberg was doing and in what context. I have to commend Silverberg, too, for his comments in so many of his short story collections and new editions of his novels: He often provides context that I’d never know. He provides biographical details, which only he can provide, but he also provides context that people like you know, insiders who have followed the genre and authors and publications for a long time. I envy you that knowledge. It’s a real pleasure to learn from you on this site.
[Reads Stuart’s comments.]
[Looks in mirror.]
Shrieks, “I’m so ooooooollllld!”
Marion, that can’t be true, and I refuse to believe you.