Monday, May 5, 2014

Review of Time:X by Wilson Tucker

"Science fiction is chock full of alien adventures, of brave ordeals and struggles against terrible odds on some lost and remote planet.  It is also full of brawny men who pilot the space ships and lovely ladies who ride in them.  Ten times out of ten when marooned on an unfriendly planet, the brawny, brainy pilot repairs the damaged ship, beats down with an uncanny skill the murderous native attack, and skips into the wild blue yonder with one hand on the controls and the other around the lady’s waist.
    It all gets rather boring.
    Every once in a while there should be some punk unable to distinguish between holes in animal and mineral matter."

Such is Wilson Tucker’s introduction to the short story ”Home Is Where the Wreck Is” in his 1954 collection Time:X.  The pulp era on its way out (it’s still on its “way out” half a century later), the stories collected look to advance science fiction beyond mere escapism.  And Tucker succeeds.  Like his contemporary Ray Bradbury, Tucker’s m.o. is more humanist and cynical than the sensationalist ‘squids in space’ of Gernsback’s magazines and those they spawned.

Time:X contains ten short stories, none of which resemble the other, save two.  It opens with the bizarre “The Street Walker”.  The story about one of the few people licensed to be outside their apartment complex, Tucker, tongue subtly in cheek, ladles out criticism of the direction of existence he perceived humans living in the urban environment to be headed, namely willful isolation at home.  Likewise cynical, “The Wayfaring Strangers” and “The Mountaineer” are short vignettes on two different men’s first encounters with extra-terrestrials.  The welcome mat rolled up and stuck in their back pockets, Tucker’s view of fundamental human nature comes streaming through.  (Those who enjoy Jack Vance will appreciate “The Mountaineer”.) “Exit” contains just as much black humor: men on death row attempt to escape using the knowledge of particle physics.

Pulp-punk, “Gentlemen—The Queen!” and ”Home Is Where the Wreck Is” are both less than subtle digs at Gernsbackian sci-fi.  The former is the story of three men who go to Mars to find a legendary beauty said to be roaming the sands, and the latter, as hinted at in the introduction, is the story of a space captain who gets more than he can handle crash landing on an alien planet.  Reactionary, these two stories say a lot about the state of the genre at the middle of the 20th century.

Philip K. Dick perhaps having read them, “MCMLV” and “Able to Zebra” are both stories featuring someone or some group playing with reality behind the scenes.  In “MCMLV” a writer is approached by secret police and asked to explain how his novels came to contain precise information on an invention not yet public.  “Able to Zebra” more meta-fictional, the main character, Horace Reid, is an adjuster, a man tasked with adjusting reality when anachronisms occur.  Opening with modern coins being found in an ancient Indian burial ground, Reid concocts the idea of utilizing sci-fi magazines to help cover up the oddity, H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine dragged into the matter.

There are also two stories which are mini-thrillers involving aliens.  “My Brother’s Wife” is a one-off about identity and how it’s taken for granted.  Possessing strong shades of Alfred Bester, “The Job Is Ended” is a private eye mystery that involves telepathy and a mysterious group mankind is having trouble communicating with.

In the end, Time:X is a good selection of shorts that offer strong commentary on the state of science fiction and fantasy at the mid-point of the 20th century.  Tucker not as well-remembered as Bradbury, it’s perhaps due to the blacker sense of cynicism innate to his writing, rather than quality of content or style.  A quality writer, Tucker strings words together in concrete fashion, much to the benefit of the underlying concepts.

The following is the table of contents for Time:X.

Introduction
“The Street Walker”
“MCMLV”
”Home Is Where the Wreck Is”
“My Brother’s Wife”
“Gentlemen—The Queen!”
“The Job Is Ended”
“Exit”
“The Wayfaring Strangers”
“Able to Zebra”
“The Mountaineer”

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