Forgotten Science Fiction: The Year of the Quiet Sun by Wilson Tucker

One thing I like to do is dig up long forgotten Hugo and Nebula award novel nominees that didn’t win, and read them to see if they should have.  Most Hugo and Nebula award winners in the novel category are remembered, often in print, or at least frequently reprinted.  In 1971, the winner for both awards was Ringworld by Larry Niven.  Everybody remembers that one, but what about the others?

Here are the other nominees:

I’ve linked each of these books to the ISFDB publication record so you can see how often they’ve been reprinted.  Three of the books, And Chaos Died, Fourth Mansions and The Steel Crocodile seemed to have been forgotten by the 1980s.  The Year of the Quiet Sun was last printed in America as an anthology of three time travel novels in 1997.  It was also nominated for the Locus Poll Award, coming in 2nd place, and actually won a retrospective John W. Campbell award in 1976 for a “… a truly outstanding original novel that was not adequately recognized in the year of its publication.”

I remember when The Year of the Quiet Sun came out, but I didn’t read it.  I got on the trail of it again last year when it was nominated for our science fiction book club, but it didn’t get enough votes to be read by the group.  I read some reviews and ordered a copy.  I finally got around to reading it a couple weeks ago.

the-year-of-the-quiet-sun

The Review

The Year of the Quiet Sun is one of the most realistic time travel stories I’ve ever read, and our chrononauts don’t travel in a time machine, but a TDV (time displacement vehicle).  I really liked that.  A secret American governmental agency builds a TDV back in the 1970s, but travel in it is limited to the location of the building where it’s housed and to a timeline that always includes a functioning nuclear power plant attached to the building.  Time travel takes a lot of power, but maybe not as much as the 1.21 gigawatts produced by the flux capacitor in the Back to the Future movies.

Another appealing aspect of this time travel novel is how timid the time travelers are with their itineraries.

The Year of the Quiet Sun is about Brian Chaney, an arrogant futurist and famous Biblical scholar, one of three men conscripted to be time travelers.  The other two are military men, Air Force Major William Moresby and Navy Lieutenant Commander Arthur Saltus.  The military men don’t think Chaney has the right stuff, and Chaney seems to have made a bad initial impression with them.  Eventually, they work out a truce.  All three fall for their beautiful young handler, Kathryn van Hise, competing for attention while they train.

The Year of the Quiet Sun has a simple beauty in its constrained ambitions.  Wilson, writing near future science fiction, uses the story to make social and political projections that didn’t pan out, but I’m not sure that ruins the story.  Science fiction that creeps past its projection date often is dated, so it’s the story that counts in the long run.

The Year of the Quiet Sun was one of the first books that were part of the legendary Ace Science Fiction Specials started in 1968 by editor Terry Carr.  Many of them were paperback originals.  And Chaos Died, Fourth Mansions and The Steel Crocodile were also Ace Science Fiction Specials.

The Analysis with Spoilers

Read no further if you plan to go out and read The Year of the Quiet Sun, because I’m going to tell everything that happens and ask why.

There’s two real tests for a science fiction book, the impact it makes when it comes out, and the impact it makes once it becomes an old science fiction book.  Science fiction goes stale easily and spoils.  For a futuristic literature, science fiction is usually about the present, and seldom becomes timeless.  And it’s usually very hard for a time travel novel to become timeless.  My favorite example of a timeless time travel novel is Replay by Ken Grimwood.

The Year of the Quiet Sun is far from timeless.  It’s a quick read at 252 paperback pages.   It’s too quiet for lovers of loud adventure fiction, and it’s too active for literary quiet.  Wilson Tucker works up a very nice time travel machine, and some reasonable characters that are somewhat interesting, especially Chaney, but where Wilson blows it, is when our time travelers travel to – a library down the street a couple years in the future. Logical, but not exciting.  But I liked that kind of realism.

The first assignment is for the President to see if he’ll be reelected.  Cautiously they move further into the future where they find a second civil war, this time its blacks against whites.  The Year of the Quiet Sun was written just after Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, during a decade of many battles for civil rights.  Wilson Tucker essentially imagines us failing, which shows little faith in the future.  If he had been right, this would have been a prophetic novel, as it is, it’s a big dud at prophecy.  Tucker just couldn’t imagine the positive changes we’ve made.

Tucker redeems himself by his trick ending.  It turns out Brian Chaney is black, which we learn slowly.  In the future of this book, but actually our past, the U.S. collapses under a new civil war, and a black time traveler showing up in territory held by whites is not welcomed.  But Chaney doesn’t know why until the very end of the story when he meets an old Kathryn van Hise.  This is an amazing coincidence that nicely ties up the novel, and it feels good for a storybook ending, but now, over forty years later, doesn’t feel right with all our hindsight.

This is why its very dangerous for a science fiction writer to explore the near future.  But this plot also doesn’t work because there is no integration with the book’s present and the future it discovers.  Wilson Tucker holds Chaney’s ethnic background for a surprise ending, but I think he would have had a much more successful novel if the reader was told immediately Chaney was black, so the theme of the story would have been constant.  Some reviewers claim its there for us to guess if we picked up the hints, but I didn’t.  The Year of the Quiet Sun was published in 1970, but set in 1978 at the beginning, with Tucker making several predictions about the future that was just eight years away.  He predicts things will be worse socially and economically, and that we elect a weak president, and about the most modern thing he predicts is some women going topless.  No MTV, PCs or Internet.

I believe if the time displacement device had been invented to solve the current problems of America before they happened, focusing on race relations by intentionally having a black time travel agent on the team, the story would have been more meaningful.  Brian Chaney constantly pines for Kathryn but always holds back while the two military men make their play.  We understand why at the end, because he’s black.  But wouldn’t knowing that fact make the story more interesting from the beginning?  Would it allow him to deal with race issues throughout the book?

Instead of using the time machine to ward off the collapse of the United States, the time travelers get stuck in the future they cannot change.  Now this is very realistic, and I admire it, and I think it makes the story much more likable.  I don’t think every science fiction story needs to save the world, but the failure here is so damn passive that it seems pitiful.  Now I both admire this restraint and feel disappointed by it too.

The Year of the Quiet Sun is about little people doing something very big in a little way, and failing in a little way.  In a way it reminds me of Timescape by Gregory Benford, another very realistic time travel story that’s not full of action.

I admire The Year of the Quiet Sun because it’s so realistic, but I’m conditioned by science fiction to want more, even knowing most action oriented time travel stories come off contrived and silly.  I guess I don’t believe people with a time machine would be so timid.  Most time travel novels are about going into the past to make a different present.  Here we have a story about traveling into the future that should have taught our characters to change the present.  Of course, what could they do?  Come back and have a press conference that’s shown on the CBS Evening News:  “Scientists report the United States will collapse in 20 years after visit to the future.”

Has anyone written a time travel story where present travelers go into the future, find out the bad stuff, return home, fix the problems and then go back to the future to check their work, and to find out what next needs to be fixed?

I think The Year of the Quiet Sun is still a fun quick read, especially for SF fans who like to read old SF, but it fails as a timeless novel.   Read Earth Abides by George R. Stewart to see what I mean by a timeless classic.  The Year of the Quiet Sun had the potential to be that good.  And maybe that’s why it was up for all those awards – readers admired it’s potential.

JWH – 5/29/12

24 thoughts on “Forgotten Science Fiction: The Year of the Quiet Sun by Wilson Tucker”

  1. The TDV concept sounds intriguing. I’ve never heard of this and it sounds like a unique approach to the story. It looks like there are limited copies available on Amazon. I’ll need to add this to my collection. Thanks for sharing these Jim.

  2. Honestly, James, some of would be timid time travellers. Okay, I would be, but then I am not about to monkey with trying to alter the past. I just want time travel so I can go on Temporal Tours through Earth’s history and then the rest of the universe. Screw messing with shit, that can lead to all sorts of problems, so I am going to leave well enough alone. Also, not getting out of the time travel vessel, I figure I like my history the way I like my nature, safely on the screen where I can not be hurt by it.

    Also, I am not getting busted by the Time Police. Maybe…

    1. These guys just drove down the street and went to the library. Of course the TDV was on the outskirts of Chicago, so that limited them too. They couldn’t travel back in time to go anywhere famous. They could have gone back a few years, during the time the TDV existed and they were testing it with animals, but that’s all.

  3. I know the character in The Accidental Time Machine by Joe Haldeman makes different leaps into the future, but I’m not sure if he comes back with the goal of fixing things. Its been too long since I’ve read it. I do remember that I liked the story.

    Certainly an interesting premise, and it is a fun idea to read some of the nominated but non-winning books from various awards. Especially if you’ve already read the winning book. The only book I read from this year’s awards slate is Ringworld, a novel I read three or four years back that I liked very much.

  4. I think you are looking at it the wrong way. Instead of saying the author fails to accturately predict the future, you should think about the author’s present. I mean his experience with race-relations in the 60’s must have been pretty dire for him to make such a prediction. It reminds me of Haldeman’s “Future War” where after seeing gays begin to come out of the closet in the 60’s he predicted everyone would turn gay. I think what the two authors have in common is that they were both deeply effected by the rapid social changes they saw in the 60’s.

    As to the other point of the surprise ending. I think what he was trying to do was show the reader that by not telling you his race that the reader would make the false assumption that he was white. Not unlike the old thought experiment where the child goes into the hospital with his father, but the doctor says “I can’t operate on this child because he’s my son” and the answer is the doctor is a woman, but some people don’t think of that. However, I think you’re right that this kind of thing would work with a short story but with a novel it would have been better for the author to have been honest with us and explore the issues in a more straightforward way.

    1. I wasn’t criticizing Wilson for not predicting the future, I was just saying by predicting the near future and getting it wrong makes the story seemed dated, but I pointed out it’s the story that counts, not the predictions. It’s fun to extrapolate trends with a science fiction story, but you have to be willing to take the knocks when you do it wrong.

      I was also saying by making the front of the book about race relations at the time, then the second half of the book would have felt more logical. Fooling me the reader by surprising me the main character is black doesn’t add much to the story other than surprise. Sure, Chaney could have been any color because Futurists and Biblical scholars can be any color. But if the time machine creators knew there were bad race problems and they picked a black man to join the team because he was black, don’t you think we the reader should have known that? The Biblical scholar issue was sleight of hand diversion – there was no chance of these time travelers going back to Biblical times.

      In fact, if we were told the government was spending billions on a time machine because of social unrest it would have made the whole project more plausible, and the novel more vital. As it was, the mission seemed more of a wim, which hurt the story.

      I’m not sure Wilson knew Chaney was black when he started the novel. I’m not sure he knew where the novel was going at all, and just fixed it up when he found an ending. The action of the story doesn’t flow logically.

      Spending billions on a time machine to solve social unrest would have been a brilliant idea. That would have made it a timeless story like Nineteen Eighty-Four. Even when they discover a civil war in the future, they don’t try to do anything to avoid it. Why? The only lame excuse they use for time traveling is to find out if the President will get reelected.

      Even though The Year of the Quiet Sun has a very realistic time machine, it has a very illogical plot.

    2. That’s an interesting point John, but does the author need to be explicit in what he or she thinks?

      By writing a novel where the United States collapses because of a civil war between black and white people isn’t that an expression of believe?

      I don’t know how passionate he must have thought about the idea. You and I both write stories – how often are you in the shower and think of some idea to use for a story? The idea just has to sound fun to write about. Playing with “what if…” ideas doesn’t mean we expect them to come true.

      Wilson could have thought one evening, “What will my time travelers find in the future? How will it affect the story? Does it offer a good ending?”

      If you think about it, what can a time traveler find in the future that will make a story good? The future is great, the future sucks, the future is pretty much the same. The future has this thing call the Internet?

      I’m surprised he didn’t think, “If we had a time machine we might could solve some of our social problems.” He was so close. Maybe I should use the idea.

  5. You know it’s funny, they say it’s an honor just to be nominated for something like the Hugo or the Nebula, but are any books that have won these awards out of print? I mean I guess you could argue they don’t tend to be out of print because they are great books, but in theory aren’t the other nominated book supposed to be great too?

    1. Read at the time of writing many stories are much more vital than they will be 10 years later – at the time, writing SF on race relations was not common. I need to re-read the book to see if it holds up, but the book was praised for it’s literary qualities (meaning less “manic” than most SF) and for a black protaonist .

      But, don’t think that reading all the nominees will give you terrific reading – as it is today various styles and authors prevale. Some I find can continue to be masterpieces among the nominees and winners and some just suck. But I loved reading them all and have very strong opinions about who should have won!

      1. I think writing styles change like the feel of movies have changed over the decades. Many people can’t watch old movies from the 1930s because they claim the acting is bad. The acting is different from today, not bad. I do think that modern writers are much better at developing characters and stories. The success of The Hunger Games is due to very good storytelling techniques.

      2. That is probably true, James, but I would point those people to You Can’t Take it With You (1938), in my opinion Frank Kapra’s finest film, or Love Me Tonight (1932) which is odd and quirky and one of the most entertaining films I’ve ever seen, or the Thin Man films or any number of other 30’s films and tell them they are truly missing out if they cannot enjoy films like this.

      3. But Carl, you’re well adapted to many styles of stories, films and television. Most people can’t stand opera but that doesn’t mean it’s bad, it just means they aren’t trained to watch it. I think people who claim to hate old black and white movies could learn to like some of them if they tried. They just don’t want to get out of their entertainment comfort zone. I think many people in our SF book club only read certain kinds of science fiction because that’s what they’ve adapted to.

      4. I completely agree. I am glad that Mary and I exposed our daughter to a wide variety of movie styles, music styles, etc. She is more open-minded about entertainment choices than many of her friends as well as her fiance. It has been fun over the years, however, watching her introduce her friends to Shakespeare adaptations, foreign films, and those BW movies I mentioned previously. We do our small part to spread the good word about these films that shouldn’t be forgotten.

        I’m also convinced that there is a ‘whatever’ (bw film, subtitled film, opera, rap, etc) for everyone, you’ve just got to find the right hook. I’ve claimed to dislike many things over the years and then found something that completely changed my mind because something in it drew me in.

      5. Yeah, I know a lot of people at my age who protest bitterly about rap music, but I think even they could find a few rap songs they like. There are a few songs by Eminem that I really like, but usually I prefer hip hop singing mixed in with other styles.

        But to get back to The Year of the Sun, which is 42 years old, we should ask if any art form that’s 42 will still have much general appeal? Would I have loved The Year of the Quiet Sun so much more if I had read it in 1970? How many people will love Eminem in 2054? Timeless art are those works that transcend this problem.

      6. That is true, and there is no way in my opinion to accurately predict what will remain timeless. Although there are things I would change about myself if I could, one thing I do enjoy about me is that I am fairly open to being able to find something of value in older works. I don’t always do so (my failed Doc Smith try), but more often than not I do, and so those older works have a timeless element for me. And good fiction, be it “timeless” or not, usually builds upon some kind of shared experience and so at the very least I can relate to something in it.

        Still, it is amazing when I discover an older work and find that it feels truly timeless, or at least so much so that it could have been written in many decades. Most recently I felt that way about Dune, a book that has so many messages that are hot button topics today: the environment, religion, political manipulation, war, racism, that it feels like Herbert looked through a spyglass to this decade and decided to write a novel addressing social concerns of the day.

      7. Yeah, I failed the Doc Smith test too. But I did like him as a kid. Some books really are badly written. Most old movies from the 1930s are not very good, I just glorify the best of them. Dune is a standout novel in many ways. There’s a reason why its been filmed twice and they’re talking about filming it again. I think The Year of the Quiet Sun could have been so much better with a couple more revisions. I think what we’ve got is a polished first draft. If Wilson had put a lot more work into it, The Year of the Quiet Sun could have been another Dune. There’s a lot of potential complexity there.

  6. OK. I agree that various forms and styles of entertainment go out of style with passing years. I also agree that there are masterpieces of all genres that stand the test of time – just haven’t re-read or re-seen a lot of them. Sometimes it makes a difference when in life we come in contact with them. I cannot get through the first chapter of The Princess of Mars and I hated Doc Smith as well (but got through the entiure Lensman series in order to know my SF history) but if I had read them when younger I might still find them mesmerizing – not for any great writing but just because of when I encountered them.
    So I have been slowly re-reading the beloved SF of my early reading – and am more scared with every one I re-read – sometimes I find them just as wonderful and other times they replace the enjoyment I felt with regret at the re-reading. I have to admit the Dune is one I hated upon re-reading. It is an important text for SF but I found it clunky and old-fashioned.

    So, what do I know.

    I guess the same thing holds for beloved movies – some stay beloved and re-watched time and again, others are relegated to important for historical reasons and nothing more. Love Frank Capra by the way, and John Ford and Michael Curtiz but Frank Borzage is too sentimental for me now.

    1. I’ve only read Dune twice, well, read once, listened once. I guess I’ll need to do another reread with a more critical eye. I don’t remember it as being clunky or old-fashioned, but on my second reading I thought it was Lawrence of Arabia rewritten for science fiction inspired by Australian aborigines. What I really need to do is read Frank Herbert’s other novels, the ones that are forgotten.

      For some reason I’m more forgiving of old movies, in fact, I even cherish their quaintness or sentimentality. I love a good Kay Francis movie, and she’s totally forgotten today. I don’t have many favorites among Borzage, but I still admire Strange Cargo whenever I rewatch it.

  7. As a fan of classic sf, I am enjoying your “Forgotten Science Fiction” reviews. This is one that I never read but it is on my massive to be read stack.

  8. Fascinating review, Jim! But I have to nitpick (agreeing with John here) that Tucker wasn’t “predicting” the future. He didn’t get the future “wrong.”

    Science fiction is fiction. It’s about a future, not the future. Prediction isn’t normally the point, although SF authors usually do extrapolate from current trends and might even intend to write a cautionary tale.

    And so I also have to disagree that science fiction “goes stale easily and spoils.” Most fiction of all genres becomes dated. Only a few have that really timeless quality (and readers might disagree about which ones). IMHO, science fiction is no better and no worse in that respect.

    But you’re really doing a disservice to science fiction authors by expecting them to forecast the future, especially when that’s not what they were intending to do. I’m sure Tucker’s intent was to write a good – fictional – story. He was an author, not a prophet.

    Personally, I have absolutely zero problems with an old story that has outdated technology or a future that’s now our past. There are other things which are harder to overlook, for me (obviously, we all are affected differently by such things).

    1. Bill, nobody can predict the future, not even prophets in the Bible, as we both know very well. Science fiction writers never try to predict the future, they are all smarter than that. But one of the common themes of science fiction is to extrapolate with a “if this goes on” story. It’s predicting one of many possible futures. Writers and readers love when an extrapolation actually happens – like the Star Trek communicators looking like flip phones It’s not predicting, but like picking a number in roulette. I’m sure Wilson Tucker back in the 1960s asked himself, “What if we don’t solve these civil rights problems with African-Americans?” He then thought, what if things get so bad we have another civil war where instead of the blue and gray fight, it’s black versus white? And then wrote a book about the idea. My criticism was the characters didn’t imagine other possibilities, even in passing.

      Yes, we can still enjoy the story even after everything that’s come to pass is different. I still enjoy science fiction stories about Martians. However, that doesn’t mean, we the reader, can’t criticize the speculation. Science fiction isn’t passive like some genres where the reader is just along for the ride. Science fiction is bullshitting ideas, and the reader is expected to participate. Science fiction readers love to argue over the finer points of speculative fiction.

      Even though The Year of the Quiet Sun doesn’t match the actual times it covers, it’s still a good story. However, what I was pointing out, is for some readers, this story will be dated and they will not like that Wilson extrapolated wrong about the trends of his day, and that’s contributing to The Year of the Quiet Sun becoming a forgotten novel.

      Bill, the word “prediction” always sets you off, but like many words in English, it’s used in multiple ways, and imprecisely. Prediction with science fiction is always synonymous with extrapolate. Only extreme religious people, and woo-woo New Age folk actually believe it’s possible to “predict” the future. In the modern usage, even outside of science fiction, the word “predict” has come to mean extrapolate or guess at possible futures based on current trends. The word prediction has been taken over by economists, futurists, sociologists, investors, and other disciplines who want to prepare for the future. Except for gamblers and stock brokers, none of these people are willing to bet on their predictions.

      To me, the future is everything I never imagined. I expect everyone to get it wrong. But I still think it’s fun to predict the future, like with science fiction, because it’s a fun game. This is the appeal of a certain kind of science fiction, otherwise it would just be pure escapist fun that had no relationship to reality. Which is what most SF has become. And that’s cool if all you want is a story, but I don’t like that kind of SF.

      I know it’s impossible to predict the future, but that doesn’t mean it’s not fun to try. And if you’re going to write a book predicting a possible near future, even just a theoretically one, you have to be willing to take the knocks for your ideas as well as accepting praise.

      You and John want to say The Year of the Quiet Sun is just a story, but that’s like saying none of the ideas and issues it deals with matters. When I criticized Wilson for not showing any hope for race relations, I meant he didn’t balance out his extrapolation with any hope of change – hey, they did have a time machine! But more than that, the present day people never expressed any hope. Which is why I criticized Wilson for poor speculation. He made his story too limited by not considering positive outcomes and actions. This story is about people constantly being beaten by fate. They didn’t fight back, they didn’t even imagine fighting back. Which made me wonder if Wilson thought this future was inevitable.

  9. That’s really not what I said at all, what I said was it was important to think about what caused Wilson to be so pessimistic and it seems as though you have!

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