Wilson Tucker (1914-2006)

Wilson Tucker was well-known and popular within sf fandom, and wrote fiction in sf and other genres. I've read only his sf.

What I've read of his fiction is distinguished by good characterization and slightly offbeat scenarios and themes. He wasn't one of the great writers in the sf field, but some of his books are memorable and worth reading.

Ice & iron (1975)

This is an unusual and curiously gripping short novel, set in an alternate world entering a new ice age, in which Canada has already been overrun by glaciers that are moving south at a rate of 61 m per year.

The mildly eccentric hero of the story, Fisher Yann Highsmith, is a member of a small team sent north by the American government to investigate strange phenomena close to the advancing ice wall. A series of puzzling objects and dead human bodies have been found in the snow as though they had fallen there, and more continue to appear at intervals. When two live humans are picked up, Highsmith begins to form a theory about what's going on.

It turns out that the phenomena are the result of an unequal war being fought further up in the future, a time when the ice is receding and the female soldiers of a matriarchal government based in Mexico are returning to reclaim the land. They find themselves opposed by scattered, mostly male barbarians, whom they fight with ‘quarterguns’, a handheld weapon that causes the enemy to vanish. No-one in that future realizes that the casualties are thrown back in time to become the phenomena investigated by Highsmith.

The novel is told from Highsmith's point of view, but also in alternating chapters from the viewpoints of various people in the future world. It's a gently melancholy tale without a happy ending, but it's not a depressing book. The message seems to be that problems come and go, but life goes on. In the end, Highsmith plans to quit his job and move to Mexico, where civilization in North America will eventually restart.

The year of the quiet sun (1970)

This novel tells the story of a small group of hastily assembled and mismatched investigators using an experimental time machine to try to investigate the political future of the USA on behalf of a fictional and dictatorial president. What they find is disturbing and dangerous: the USA will soon be almost destroyed in a fierce civil war between blacks and whites.

Overall, it's a striking and memorable novel somewhat flawed by its over-pessimistic scenario: we now know that nothing of the sort ever happened. But we should bear in mind that it was written at the beginning of the Nixon presidency and is perhaps understandable in that context. Furthermore, the scenario is only background: the personal story of the investigators takes centre stage and is more interesting and less dated.

Tucker is good at characterization, and the story of what happened to his flawed heroes remains worth reading. It's also a poignant comment on the hazards of operating at the leading edge of technology.

The Lincoln hunters (1958)

This is a time-travel novel, in which the time-travellers use a vehicle similar to the one later used in The year of the quiet sun. However, here the travel is into the past, and most of the action takes place in 1856, the year in which Abraham Lincoln made a speech that someone is later interested in recording.

Recording the speech should be a routine assignment, but things go wrong in various ways, giving us a story.

It's a minor, rather quaint novel, written with the style and attitudes of the 1950s; it makes quite pleasant reading and has Tucker's usual good characterization, but won't set the world alight.

The time masters (1971)

This one puzzles me because it lacks the distinctiveness and some of the quality of Tucker's other novels. It tells the story of a small group of near-immortals who reached Earth by spaceship in ancient times and were stranded here by shipwreck, left to live on for thousands of years, passing for human.

This is not an original scenario (Keith Laumer wrote at least two similar novels in the 1960s) and neither is it written in an original way. Even the characterization isn't up to Tucker's normal standard.

It's not a bad book, you can read it if you want to, but it seems hardly worth buying except for Tucker completists.

The best of Wilson Tucker (1943-71)

This is a collection of nine short stories published from 1943 to 1971. Most of them are readable but not outstanding; the only one that makes an impression on me is To the Tombaugh Station (1960).

Well, OK, King of the planet (1969) is somewhat memorable as well, though I'm not sure why.

Overall, however, the collection isn't really worth buying unless you're a Tucker fanatic.

Written in September 2009