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