Vintage Sci-Fi Month is over (it’s in January), but that doesn’t mean it’s time to stop reading vintage sci-fi. After great response to my posts during January, I’ve decided to make it an ongoing feature to read and review individual vintage sci-fi books. As I recall, the rule for calling something “Vintage” is that it was written before you were born, but feel free to adjust that as you like.
The Year of the Quiet Sun by Wilson Tucker
I like lists, so I’ve been reading through all the Hugo Award winners and nominees from the beginning. This brought me to The Year of the Quiet Sun by Wilson Tucker, an author whose work I’ve not read before. It’s about time travel. Time travel is difficult to do well, in my opinion. I’ve even written a piece on the problems I see in most time travel-related fiction. Basically, they tend to fall into the error of being historical fiction with some sci-fi trappings or going down the endless whirlpool of time travel paradoxes. Tucker completely avoids the first possible error and only touches the second. There will be SPOILERS in my discussion.
Basically, The Year of the Quiet Sun is a bleak story of the future. But there is much more going on in this pithy novel than that. Brian Chaney, a biblical scholar and demographer, is enlisted by Kathryn van Hise to go to the future in order to test a time travel machine. Chaney caused much controversy already in his publication of a midrash that predates the New Testament by a couple hundred years that appears to be the basis for the book of Revelation. That was a mistake. Now hated basically worldwide, he just wants a quiet life away from the public eye. Chaney and others are sent to see what the next election will foretell the current President. Such an act is so perfectly cynical in its political lack of finesse that it plays even better today than it ought. After all, who couldn’t see our current leadership using such a fantastic tool for such a short-sighted goal?
Anyway, they find that the President did get re-elected while also viciously crushing a coup attempt. But when the characters go forward in time even farther, they discover apocalyptic war and societal breakdown, resulting in the death of one character and Chaney finding the base from which he’s traveled in disrepair. When he speaks with Kathryn, he notes all the horrible events and how the time travel project itself essentially presaged them. He asks how he gets the information back in time to prevent the awful future he now faces, and Kathryn points out that because the nuclear reactor is burned out, he cannot return. And here we find that Chaney is, in fact, a black man and due to various ways the wars played out, he is distrusted completely due to the color of his skin. Kathryn, we find, is the only one who won’t be terrified of him purely based on his race. And thus big reveal, coupled with his own plight, is where we readers are left, contemplating the horror of the whole scenario.
The book isn’t flawless. It suffers from no small amount of misogyny. Women are mostly judged on their looks, and the word “cad” is used in a teasing light. Serial sexual harassment is funny, right? Wrong. Thankfully, this doesn’t become an overwhelming part of the narrative, though Kathryn never rises much above being a foil for Brian’s–and other characters’–fantasies. The *short) length and pacing of the novel are limiting factors. Leaving me wanting more isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but the slow burn at the beginning of the book sparks and explodes into the climactic scenes so swiftly that I wish Tucker had developed the actual time traveling scenes more fully. The final plot twists came in a storm that had me flipping back several pages to see if I’d missed something.
The edition I purchased of the book includes an introduction to the work which features a lengthy quote from Tucker about the novel in which he states that others have found themes in the book he didn’t intend to include. He doesn’t discourage this, but instead rather modestly basks in the wonder of having created something people read and enjoy so much. It’s a neat moment, but having read the theme that he specifically talks about–water as a recurring event that cleanses throughout the book–I can’t help but see it as a major theme of the book! This, despite Tucker denying it! But that’s what makes this book so good, in my opinion. Something that makes it last. It is completely full to the gills of these themes. What exactly is meant by the Qumran Midrash–somewhat erroneously taken as a fictional account rather than commentary–in the book? The parallels with Revelation are telling, and the lake of fire being paralleled by the literal lake of radioactive fire that was Lake Michigan’s future is also spot on. Is the finding of an ancient text disproof of Christianity? Tucker doesn’t push that narrative and in fact seems to be urging more care given to reading ancient texts and, interestingly, texts about ancient texts.
Then, the final twist: having Chaney revealed as a black man was surprising in many ways. First: it confronts readers about their assumptions. Yes, I assumed he was white because the book was written in the 70s as sci-fi. More to the point, I assumed he was white because I always assume main characters are like me. Intentional or not, this made me think about implicit bias and racism that can occur–something I’m clearly capable of being guilty of as much as anyone else. Second: the plot twist forces readers in to the uncomfortable position of thinking about their own racial fears. Third: it twists itself into circles because the black man is feared–exactly what is being confronted in America today and certainly no less so in the 70s when the book was written. It’s an ingenius twist that isn’t quite given enough time in the plot to stew and simmer. But that doesn’t take away its power. In fact, it may amplify it. The twist leaves readers with it as one of the final impressions in the novel and makes us think about it, discomfort and all.
The Year of the Quiet Sun is a somber, subtle read. It requires attention to details and searching for meaning. Tucker filled this book to the brim and overflowing with themes–intentional or not–that demand reading and re-reading and careful reflection. For this, I would consider it a masterpiece-level work. It calls for reflection. Read the book, please! Go! Do so! And do it with an open mind, ready to reflect. This isn’t a “fun read,” but it’s a great one.
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I need to return to this one…. And yes, the race commentary components make it appealing. I dislike the vast majority of time-travel SF fictions (which is probably why I put it down three times already!) thus it needs to have other elements that I gravitate towards — for example, social commentary and solid ways of telling.
As I mentioned before, definitely check out The Long Loud Silence (1953, expanded 1969). And keep in mind, that the core of the novel (even if you read the expanded version) was published in the 50s. 50s post-apocalyptic fictions rarely touched on trauma and cannibalism!
It’s also a bleak tale. And a powerful one.
I want to like time travel more than I end up liking it, it seems. I just think that it ought to be a better sub-genre. As I said, it seems like the vast majority of the books fall into one of the major pitfalls. It’s like so many just want to write historical fiction and don’t have the know-how so instead they dress it up as time travel so that any inconsistencies can be waved off as paradox. On the other hand, some just focus on the hard-sf side of it and it quickly gets tedious.
Anyway, yes, give this one a try!
I did order that copy you pointed out of Long Loud, so I’m just waiting for it to arrive to slot it into my huge TBR pile.
I’ve truly enjoyed only one time travel SF story — Ian Watson’s short story “The Very Slow Time Machine” (1979). It’s a fascinating, more metaphysical, take on the genre. https://sciencefictionruminations.com/2014/06/06/book-review-the-very-slow-time-machine-ian-watson-1979/
There are other short fictions on the topic that appeal — Michael Moorcock’s novella “Behold the Man” comes to mind as well. Also reviewed on my site…
Thank you for letting me know your review was up for this! *adds to TBR*
“an introduction to the work which features a lengthy quote from Tucker about the novel in which he states that others have found themes in the book he didn’t intend to include”
I ran into something similar recently, I can’t remember what author said it, they were talking about that the author writes the story, but it is up to readers to interpret it, and the author has no control on how different readers will interpret the story and what different people will get out of it.
” and in fact seems to be urging more care given to reading ancient texts and, interestingly, texts about ancient texts. ”
This absolutely has my attention too! Man, I have got to find me a copy of this book!
It looks like there are several copies on eBay and Abebooks. This one is at 5$ shipping/price combined. Not sure how strongly you want it, but like I said I didn’t have luck with my interlibrary loan system on this one. Hope you can get your hands on it. I bet you’ll like it!
thank you!!! I’ll take a look at Abebooks! 🙂
Read it as as Ace Science Fiction special in 1970, and loved it.
Have you read it since? It’s fantastic. I ended up getting another Wilson Tucker book. Surprised how most of them seem out of print and not in ebooks anywhere.
[…] The Year of the Quiet Sun by Wilson Tucker– A haunting, poignant look at time travel that is a must-read for sci-fi fans. […]
[…] book that I’m sure I never would have read otherwise. I liked it so much that I even wrote a longer post on it in my Vintage Sci-Fi series. The other books this year are widely variant in my enjoyment of them. My third time […]