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Thursday, January 26, 2017

Up the Line by Robert Silverberg

Read for January book group.   Two stars out of five.

I've attended 20+ years of scifi conventions now and my friend and I have been observing one panel that seems to repeatedly crop up - The Classics. In which the panel members and audience wax poetic about "the good old days" (roughly the 1950-1970s), how the "new" books just don't have the same sense of wonder, and how EVERYONE "should" (re)reading Heinlein, Azimov, Vinge, Silverberg, Bear, etc.

I've been reading those authors since I discovered scifi in my teens.

Some books and authors have withstood the test to time.

Other books (and authors) should quietly be relegated to the bottom shelf.

Up the Line was one of those books.

The premise is interesting enough - Jud Elliot leaves a dreary Civil Servant job after three weeks and discovers he can be a Time Courier, shuttling people "up the line" to momentous events in history. His specialty is Byzantium, and after training in, he begins tours of his own. While during one layoff - a mandatory two week break between tours - he goes "up the line" to visit a fellow courier and meets Pulcheria, a young woman of remarkable beauty and a very distant relation. What happens next transcends time and timelines as one of Jeb's tourists escapes the group, messes up time, and sends the Couriers scrambling to fix the problem before the Time Patrol finds out.

What happened next was a strong desire to wash my brain in bleach.

This was sexually...gross. I don't think I can describe it any other way. What should have been a futuristic representation of the freedom of sex and sexuality came across as a male wet dream - where the women are loose and their thighs tight. Breasts are for display and nipples for grabbing. Where sex is for the taking across time and timelines. Sorry Mr. Silverberg, I know you wrote erotica before scifi - but this melding of the two genres didn't work.

Or perhaps it did...?

If I can step away from my revulsion, it would be interesting to find out how this was received in 1969/1970. Was it viewed through the lens of "Yeah! Free love, Baby!" Was this indicative of the thoughts, mores, and bra burning of the 1970's? Can someone in their 20s, 30s or even 40s read this now and marvel at the whole aspect of time traveling?

Allow me to briefly touch on the historical aspect. Some thought, study and research was obviously given to this topic. Why did Silverberg pick Byzantium? For it's richness? A cross-roads in history? I'm not a historian on Middle Eastern history so I can't speak to the accuracy of what was written. What I can say the bits that were presented came across as a lot of names delivered in rapid fire presentation as the Hagia Sophia burning and the city falling to pillaging and raping.

Of moderate interest was Jeb's "Black Death" tour - and the precautions taken to ensure the plague wasn't brought forward in time (even though it still exists, even today...).

Could Up the Line have even been written sans all the lusting, public sex and groping of pre-pubescent kids? Probably.

But it wasn't. So there it is. Not recommended.

Addendum: much to my shock, this was nominated for a Nebula Award for Best Novel in 1969, and a Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1970. I probably shouldn't be so surprised...I'm willing to bet in 1970 the target audience was 98% male.

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