The Lincoln Hunters by Wilson Tucker
SFBC Edition, January 1961.
Review by Mark Yon
Wilson Tucker (1914-2006) is a name that many SF fans will have forgotten. The alleged originator of the term ‘space opera’ and the initiator of Tuckerization (whereby friends and family’s names are used as tribute in stories) it seems that these will perhaps be Tucker’s legacy to SF. In his day however he was seen as a recommended author. His output was not as stellar as say, Asimov or Heinlein, but his tales were good, solid, well-researched and much-liked.
The Lincoln Hunters is one of those worth resurrecting. The tale itself is now seen as rather mundane perhaps, but at the time of its original publication it must have been a great entertainment.
It is essentially a time travel tale. In the rather sterile future of 2578, the company Time Researchers sends people (called ‘Characters’) back in time to record or transcribe famous events for home museums.
On this occasion Benjamin Steward is sent as part of a team to audio-record President Lincoln’s so-called ‘Lost Speech’ of May 19, 1856 in Bloomington, Illinois. This was a speech about slavery that, according to history, was so impassioned that the reporters there forgot to write it down. (Alternatively, it has been suggested that the speech was conveniently lost afterwards due to its controversial content.)
Steward’s arrival is a little problematical – his time-travelling ‘bullet’ is deposited in a creek, the day of his arrival is the day after the speech has been made – and so things are clearly not off to a good start. Things appear more awry when Steward meets someone who thinks they have met him the day before. This is Owen Lovejoy, one of Lincoln’s fellow speakers and anti-slavery speaker. Steward is noticed by Lincoln and speaks to him. However, interacting with them may have unintended issues for Steward and his team.
Much of the latter part of the book is spent trying to deal with the complication that Steward has been sent back to the same place twice and so risks meeting himself in that most-loved of time travel elements, the paradox. Precautions are made to ensure the two don’t meet because if they do it means death.
There’s a nicely authentic Western feel to the world of the 1850’s. Set in Tucker’s hometown of Bloomington, it does feel that the setting is genuinely reliable. Tucker doesn’t skimp on the downside either. Bloomington is ‘incredibly dirty’, like …’all the towns and cities of the ancient worlds were dirty beyond belief, when compared to the fastidious cleanliness of his own modern city-state’ (page 61.) Despite all the difficulties and hardships, Steward clearly revels in it.
On the weak side for me, the rest of the team are a little odd. Being Characters with stage backgrounds, much of their speech is said as if on a stage, with quotes from Shakespeare, the Second Shakespeare or other staged lines. This is meant to be endearing but actually can be quite wearying over the stretch of a novel. The disappearance of Bobby Bloch in the 1850’s adds tension but really is a situation that shouldn’t have happened. (As an aside, in Tuckerization mode, could ‘Bobby Bloch’ be Robert Bloch, author of Psycho?)
As you might expect for a book over fifty years old, there were parts that have admittedly dated. Using wire for recording purposes was no doubt state of the art in the 1950’s and 60’s but now seems quaint. Having to explain what a President was is a little unnecessary, yet explained away as due to the disappearance of much of the older history.
I did find quite interesting the point made as to why that history has disappeared and consequently what the future is like. Under the rule of the Emperor, the 26th Century seems to be a cleaner, yet more restrictive lifestyle. There is a lengthy passage two thirds of the way in about the Battle of Kadesh, between Egyptian Rameses the Second and Hittite King Muwatallis, whereby Muwatallis won the battle yet whose victory was eradicated from history by the wily Rameses and his reporting coup. All evidence of the win was erased, destroyed and removed and replaced with Rameses’ version, ie: that he won. When asked the purpose of this tale, the Characters are told, “File it away…. And remember it some day when you have need of a big lie.”
This perspective becomes more important at the end of the novel which actually is not what you expect.
But it’s pretty obvious that this is overall a fun tale and one which read very quickly. Its influence on time travel stories (The Time Tunnel TV series for example springs to mind) is no doubt important, if only for the little details that Tucker adds. Characters get detailed notes of speech idioms, authentic clothing, important history before being sent to wherever. I see clear connections between this and Connie Willis’s tales, for example.
This rattled along nicely.
Mark Yon, April 2011.