The Lincoln Hunters, by Wilson Tucker

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Wilson Tucker’s short 1958 novel The Lincoln Hunters is set in 2578.  Society has emerged from a fractured past which has seen revolution and the replacement of democracy in the United States with an autocratic emperor.  Life expectancy has been extended to as much as 200 years, but there is rationing, and anybody who is unemployed is forcibly conscripted for what is essentially slave labour.  In the upheavals preceding this new stability much of the historical record was lost and only a hazy knowledge of the past exists.  The plot concerns a Cleveland-based corporation, Time Researchers, which has a monopoly on time travel into the past and uses the technology to send individuals, known as Characters – hired for their ability to blend in – on trips to research events for wealthy clients and if required retrieve artefacts.

The novel opens with Amos Peabody, curator of a museum that relies on the retrieval of lost material from the past, commissioning Time Researchers to go back 700 years to recover a lost speech Abraham Lincoln gave on 19 May 1856 in Bloomington, Illinois.  This was the beginning of the Republican Party, but the speech was not transcribed.  Peabody particularly requests that the mission be led by Benjamin Steward, an experienced time traveller.  Many of the Characters regard the people in the periods they are sent to as no more than the dead they will become, but Ben has a keen sense of history, enjoys it, and appreciates the freshness and potential of the different times he visits.  He is aware of the faults of the mid-nineteenth century, but conscious that there is more scope for personal initiative than there is in his own time.  Unfortunately he had been involved in a disastrous expedition to ancient Rome when a colleague had been hacked to death, and a further black mark in his file could curtail his employment with the organisation.

The 1850s should be a routine assignment, but things go wrong from the start when the engineers manage to send Ben, on his solo reconnaissance, to a day later than the target date.  He is disturbed to find a piece of recording wire lying in rubbish, and meet a man who already knows him and displays hostility.  Something bad appears to have occurred, but he cannot determine what.  Returning to his own time, he selects three Characters to accompany him on the mission, but one, Bloch, is an unreliable alcoholic under a great deal of stress.  His brother had become unemployed and been forced into a government labour scheme, the irony being that he is effectively a slave in the 26th century, while Ben and company are attending a meeting which will be debating slavery and its abolition in the 19th.  The main expedition goes to the right day and a recording of Lincoln’s speech is secured, but Bloch has disappeared and Ben needs to track him down, with the clock ticking to the point when Ben will arrive on his recce.

That is critical because of the problem of what would happen if the same person met him- or herself: could they co-exist or would they cancel each other out and vanish.  The theory is they would both cease to be, but when he inevitably overstays, only the Ben who has just arrived for the reconnaissance shot is extinguished (the implications, would the company have sent the main mission when Ben failed to return from his first trip for instance, or even how anything described after it could have taken place, are not considered by Tucker).   The assumption, hitherto untested, that such an event would cancel out both versions gives the surviving Ben and Bloch, now deemed to be dead ‘back home’, an opportunity to shake the sterile world of 2578 from their very muddy boots, and make their way in the rather more exciting world of 1856; an unsurprising conclusion given the continual emphasis on Ben’s feeling of kinship with it.

Tucker makes some oblique but telling points about his own society.  Peabody’s initial walk to the Time Researchers’ building allows Tucker to paint a decadent future, but resonating with the twentieth century United States.  Youngsters adopt outlandish fashions (as ancient Egyptian styles are trendy, women are virtually topless) and are unwilling to go anywhere except by car; a pedestrian is an eccentric.  Like today, information has a monetary value and it is in Time Researchers’ interest to restrict it, as monopolies do; hence forays into the past, being client-driven, are unsystematic.  There is a suggestion that we view the past through the lens of the present, and this is influenced ideologically to support the status quo: the emperor rules over a territory divided into city-states, and Time Researchers’ analysts assume this is how the early United States was organised, so rather than Bloomington, where the 1856 convention was held, being the city of Bloomington in the state of Illinois, it is thought of as the city state Bloomington-Illinois.

The novel challenges a liberal view that progress will be gradual but unceasing.  Because much of history has been lost, the imperial regime can claim it represents a novel approach to political problems, whereas actually it is a type that has been tried often before but which its subjects are not in a position to contrast with alternative forms of governance.  A lengthy example of the possibilities for history to be manipulated by those in charge is given in the account of how Egyptian pharaoh Ramses II disastrously lost the Battle of Kadesh to the Hittite Muwatalli II but proclaimed a magnificent victory anyway.  He inaugurated a ‘great lie’, to the extent that for thousands of years it was believed, until Time Researchers uncovered the truth of the scale of the Egyptian defeat.  Spin in politics is nothing new, and will doubtless still be going on in 2578.

The Lincoln Hunters is an enjoyable stab at a time-travel novel, but unsophisticated compared to, say, the mind-bending but logical multiple loops in The Time Traveler’s Wife.

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