Up the Line

More Silverberg.

A strong contender for the greatest time travel novel ever written.

Up the Line

Raw Feed (1992): Up the Line, Robert Silverberg, 1969.

This book was a lot of fun, a lot better than I expected. Along with Robert Heinlein’s “All You Zombies” and Alexander Jablokov’s “Ring of Time”, it’s one of the most complicated time travel stories I’ve read. I read recently a scientist saying that Silverberg did about all you can do with time travel in this novel, and that’s true.

This is one of those few books that lives up to that sf reviewer’s cliches about an author throwing off in a paragraph ideas others would base a novel. (And Silverberg would do fine either way.) Silverberg gives us the idea of killing one’s ancestors (one of the very oldest and hoariest time travel ideas) as a form of suicide and revenge on one’s father. Linked to this is the idea (with more or less incestful connotations) of sleeping with your female ancestors (not your mother though). Silverberg introduces the idea of financial schemes via time travel: currency manipulation, planting antiques to be found by archaeologists, smuggling artifacts. Of course, there is the possibility of altering history (a possibility guarded against by the comically fanatical and boorish Time Patrol) by saving JFK, poisoning Christ, killing Hitler. Silverberg has his Time Couriers fully use time as a fourth dimension of travel to set up alternate lives in history, to meet each other at non-sequential points in their lives. And he comes up with what I believe is a new question for time travel: the Cumulative Paradox. If many time travelers through the centuries go back to a fixed point in space and time (say the Crucifixion), why doesn’t the historical record show thousands of people at an event instead of a few?

Silverberg has a broad knowledge of history (he’s written several non-fiction books on history) so it’s no surprise that he’s able to bring history alive as well as his Time Courier protagonist who carefully arranges the order and length of time jumps he shows his charges. Silverberg, with brief passages, brings history alive. And he knows what kind of things people like me want to see in history: assassinations (including Huey Long), plagues (there’s a special Black Plague tour), riots, revolts.

So, I expected the history to be well-done, but I didn’t expect such clever variations on the time travel theme, and I certainly didn’t expect the light, breezy style and comedy — most of it being of the sexual farce variety. If this novel were filmed, it could be a porn movie with the sex scenes in it (in the text there’s not that much explicit sex. Amongst the many things Silverberg has written is porn, so that adds an extra punch to the sexcapades of the hero (including a not so great, rather mechanical session, with the infamously rapacious Theodora) who concludes there’s a lot of truth to the notion that “jazzing one snatch” is much like “jazzing” another. Our hero, Judson Daniel Elliott III, also says, self-mockingly, sex with love with his ancestor Pulcheria is better than sex without love.

It’s not only a plenitude of sex that marks this as a late sixties book but a plenitude of drugs. The sex is mostly heterosexual but homosexuality is mentioned. A case of child molestation is integral to the plot. A major mention is made of race relations. Here a black named Sambo Sambo befriends Elliott — who he describes as a loser. Sam feels sorry in a pitiful way for Elliott when he screws up by duplicating himself temporally and incurs the fatal wrath of the Time Police, so he gets him a job as a Time Courier. The element of race is played up in some witty repartee between Jew Elliott and Sam. Sam is also a product of genetic purification of black genes. There is some element of Black Pride with Sam’s life in Africa. Another element of the sexual farce is Elliott watching himself copulate — first with cold terror, then clinical detachment at the comic, rather grotesque sight. Synaesthia — experimental subject of some 50’s and sixties’ sf — shows up here.

Silverberg manages a clever ending with Elliott just waiting for the Time Patrol to catch on to his temporal sins, and then he vanishes into never existence in mid-sentence.

 

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