Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Review of The Year of the Quiet Sun by Wilson Tucker

Regardless top three, top four, whatever, time travel is inarguably one of the most popular plot devices in science fiction.  I sometimes feel as though I’ve encountered every possible iteration.  From David Gerrold’s metaphorical use in The Man Who Folded Himself to Lauren Beuke’s application in serial killer horror The Shining Girls, Isaac Asimov’s time police in The End of Eternity to H.G. Wells’ exploration of the future The Time Machine, Octavia Butler’s contrast of race perception in Kindred to Michael Bishop’s study of prehistoric man in No Enemy But Time—hell, the VandMeer’s even have a three-part anthology series devoted entirely to time travel short fiction.  Wilson Tucker’s 1970 The Year of the Quiet Sun falls somewhere in the middle of it all.

Brian Chaney is a biblical scholar pondering a new project after having just published a controversial book on the Dead Sea scrolls.  Relaxing on the Florida beach, he is approached by a government agent and given the proposition of working on a secret project.  Provided only enough details to entice, Chaney eventually accedes and makes his way to a secret military base where he learns that he, along with two other men, will be time traveling.  Though initially told he might have the opportunity to explore in person some of the work he covered in his Dead Sea scrolls research, an emergency request arrives from the President of the United States that supercedes all other work.  Into the future the three men go.

I’m guessing for a lot of readers the extended opening of Year of the Quiet Sun will be considered ‘slow’.  Tucker takes his time developing the characters, their relationships, their situation, the possibilities of their situation, and ultimately the mystery of what lies ahead in time.  At about the two-thirds point, however, the novel takes off.  Tucker puts the proverbial pedal to the floor.  The gears he had set turning finally mesh, setting the heart of the story in motion.  No coincidence, at this point is where the core of science fiction readers will likewise also engage.  (Forget that boring character and theme development, break out the time machine!)

At that point Tucker also takes narrative structure in a new, and I would say, successful direction—at least more successful than thematic interlock.  The shift in structure wonderfully complementing story, it’s a pity the themes don’t congeal in more rigid form.  I don’t want to spoil matters, but to say all said gears turn in harmony is untrue.  Another way of putting this is, the novel’s engine rattles and clanks.  It gets the novel somewhere, but certainly not in one piece; parts are left trailing in the road.  But I have taken this metaphor far enough; the ambiguous title reflects the story’s ambiguous cohesion.

And it’s a shame as there are some truly interesting ideas in the novel.  The Cold War of course lingers, but beyond this America is on the brink of Civil War due to bad politics and race wars (something which we see ourselves experiencing again in 2018).  But perhaps the most fascinating aspect of The Year of the Quiet Sun is the idea that portions of the Bible are in fact fiction.  Like inserting an epic fantasy novella into the Torah, things like the book of Revelations take on whole new aspects of potential in that context.  Forget about whether scholars of yesteryear correctly translated the original Hebrew, this calls into question the fundamental legitimacy of holy books as consecrated word, and whether or not we, 2000+ years later, have any right to confirm with certainty the roots of the sacred texts millions base their lives on.

In the end, The Year of the Quiet Sun possesses truly interesting social, religious, historical, and political ideas that are not as synthesized as they could have been; ancient biblical scholarship, Cold War commentary, race, and time travel are a mixed bag.  Tucker gives every indication of how they should interlock in the novel, but the execution is not enough to deliver a gestalt package.   Prose is nicely dense and limits what could have been a 500 page novel to roughly 250 pages (though there are some eye-rolly bits of immature sexuality).  Ultimately it is what James Harris says it is: “It’s too quiet for lovers of loud adventure fiction, and it’s too active for literary quiet”, meaning it’s a middling book.

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