The Time Masters by Wilson Tucker
Price I paid: none
In Knoxville, Tennessee, the men involved in the top-secret Ridgerunner project are about to complete work on the first rocket designed to probe beyond the solar system, and Secret Service agents in that city are becoming frantic over the presence of one Gilbert Nash, a man without a past.
The investigation of Nash began when it was discovered that he subscribed to every journal of science currently published in the free world—archeology [sic], geology, astronomy, meteorology, chemistry, medicine and, most disturbing of all, nuclear physics. Was he merely showing a healthy interest in science, or perhaps something more sinister? Determined to find out, the government agents are soon plunged into the most baffling and frustrating case of any of their careers.
Every fact they uncover only adds to the mystery surrounding Nash’s identity. He seems to have come into existence out of nowhere on March 8th, 1940, the date the United States decided in earnest to build an atomic bomb, and then migrated to Knoxville just in advance of the establishment of the Ridgerunner project. On the door to his office appear only his name and the word “Investigations.” And, although Nash gave his age as 31 in 1940, he appears not to have aged a day since that time.
When a key member of the Ridgerunner project goes to Nash’s office and then commits suicide a few days later, the search for Nash’s true identity and purpose becomes desperately urgent. But only Shirley Hoffman, secretary to one of the agents, is able to get close enough to Nash to actually converse with him. What he says adds a new and frightening dimension to the ever deepening mystery.
While dining, he begins to tell her the story of Gilgamesh, hero of an epic written thousands of years ago in ancient Assyria. Supposedly immortal, Gilgamesh was a man whose origins were either unknown or unrecorded, and who stalked through the land accomplishing mighty deeds.
As the story of Gilgamesh unfolds, Shirley Hoffman begins to wonder just what Nash’s interest in this ancient tale is—and by the time he reaches the end of the epic, she learns the incredible and terrifying answer.
THE TIME MASTERS is a compelling novel of science fiction that will hold readers i the grip of suspense until the very end. As the identity of Gilbert Nash is revealed—and the countdown begins that will blast the first rocket outside of the solar system—the book builds to an unforgettable and shattering climax.
I’ve read Wilson Tucker before and I didn’t have much intention of revisiting him, but this book turned out to be a very special case. I only became aware of it after a reader got in contact with me after reading Resurrection Days. They had a question about the book they thought I could answer. It turned out I didn’t have that information, but it set me scouring the Internet. I never did find the answer the reader was looking for, but I did hit upon this review of The Time Masters, which had a very interesting line:
The novel is set in the early 70s, and takes place in Knoxville, Tennessee.
I don’t know if I’ve made it super clear up to this point, but I live in Knoxville. I had to find this book and read it.
And so I did, meaning that I’ve probably read every single science fiction novel set in Knoxville. That’s an achievement!
This Interlibrary Loan copy is courtesy of the E.W. King Library of King College, Bristol, Tennessee. Many thanks to them! That’s also why I had to nab cover art from elsewhere, and why I don’t have any jacket information.
Diligent readers might remember that the beginning of The Christ Clone Trilogy took place in Knoxville. Whether we decide that those books are science fiction or not—and it’s still up in the air—I think it only solidifies my position as the expert in Knoxville-based scientifiction.
Like Resurrection Days, The Time Masters was a book with a lot of issues that was nonetheless a breezy, fun read. This might be a Wilson Tucker hallmark, but two books don’t make a very good sample size.
The novel’s hero is Gilbert Nash. We find out right away that something weird is up with Nash. For one, the book starts with a prologue in which a spaceship explodes and some unnamed characters bail and find themselves heading toward an unnamed blue planet. After that, we get a chapter where two government men, Misters Dikty and Cummings, are discussing a mysterious fellow who showed up in Knoxville with no history. He just sorta materialized and set up shop as a detective. Our government men from an unnamed agency think that this is awfully fishy because of Knoxville’s proximity to Oak Ridge.
I also love that this is the only science fiction book I’ve read that mentions Oak Ridge, and honestly, that’s a lot odder than books not mentioning Knoxville. Knoxville’s not got a lot going on for it. It’s a wonderful little town—I love it here—but beyond the Sunsphere, which didn’t even exist when Tucker was writing this novel, there’s not much to go on that would merit some sci-fi. I’d love to be proven wrong about that.
Oak Ridge, on the other hand, should be at least worth referencing more often. It’s where America’s nuclear program started! All these books I’ve read about scientists working for the government in towns built for that purpose—and there have to be at least a half-dozen of them—and not one of them takes place in America’s original Secret City.
Recommended reading: The Girls of Atomic City by Denise Kiernan.
It might also be worth noting that several characters in this book refer to the town as “The Ridge,” and I have never, ever heard anyone say that.
So off the bat we know that Gilbert Nash is something weird and funny, and due to the title of this book I assumed it meant he was some sort of time traveler. Nevermind that the book started off with a spaceship exploding. I thought that this would be explained away. Spaceships can also be timeships. That’s a thing. It turns out that no, he is not a time traveler, and we learn this over the course of lots and lots of exposition dumps over the rest of the novel. Not much else happens. This book is largely people sitting around and talking.
Our first dump of this kind comes when we first meet Nash properly. He’s interviewing a potential client, a man named Gregg Hodgkins. Hodgkins is a scientist over at Oak Ridge, although he lives in Knoxville, which isn’t unusual. Google tells me that if I wanted to commute to the Y-12 complex every day it would only be about a half hour each way, which is good podcast time. If I had to do it in 1971, I’d die of boredom.
I want to mention that it took me a long time to decide whether or not this book was set contemporary to its writing. I don’t think it ever says so outright, and for a long time I felt like it was set in the 40s when Oak Ridge was a big secret. It would have explained our Federal Agent characters and their interest. They do say that Nash first appeared on March 8, 1940. When one of the feds asks the other what that date means to them, they say it’s their grandson’s birthday, which is not only a weird bit of detail but also a problem. If this conversation is taking place in ’71 or thereabouts, we have a character with a thirty-year-old grandson, which would, in turn, make the character a federal agent who is at least seventy years old. That’s not impossible, but it seems out of place. There’s no other direct or indirect reference to his age.
I suspect that this is a result of this novel being a revised edition of one from 1953. That would make a lot more sense timing-wise. It would not, however, make sense to think that this edition takes place wholly in 1953 because this one mentions contemporary things like the Apollo program. I think it’s probably just a line of dialogue that got missed in the revision process.
Anyway, Hodgkins. Hodgkins needs Nash to help find his wife, Carolyn. She’s disappeared. Moreover, we get this really weird sexist bit here. Part of the interminable exposition of this part reveals that Hodgkins was initially attracted to his wife because she was so intelligent (also physically attractive). This isn’t the problem. The problem is that he says that it’s important for a man to have an intelligent wife, but it’s also important that she not be as intelligent as he is. A man naturally has to feel superior, says this character. So the problem with their marriage is that it turns out that Carolyn is actually a lot smarter than he is.
Now, this is dialogue, coming from a character, and is not necessarily the feelings of the author. I get that. I’m still not wild about it.
Along the way, Hodgkins reveals that his wife has some interesting things going on, things that match up perfectly with the description of Nash that we got from the federal agents in their interminable exposition only one chapter ago. Of note is that they have fairly dark skin (they “look Egyptian”) and the corneas of their eyes are yellowish, although I think maybe the author meant sclera there? Nash is suddenly very interested in this woman’s whereabouts, although we don’t learn exactly why until later.
Despite this book’s massive exposition dumps, it actually doles out relevant information just a little at a time. On one hand, this is kind of nice. It means we don’t get all the things we need to know at once and so we get a bit of a mystery vibe going on. Tucker also wrote mysteries, so I think he knew what he was doing there. On the other hand, this process makes us fully aware of just how much fluff the book has that is not useful to the story at all. When we go twenty pages between pertinent information but we’ve had the characters sitting around and talking that whole time, the reader becomes aware that the book is getting tedious. Also, a lot of that information is stuff that Nash already knows, so I felt like he was deliberately withholding information and that bothered me too.
To be fair, the book sailed along at a fair clip. The long periods of character chatter worked out a bit better than I’ve let on because the characters had some personality and were moderately fun to read.
Most of that stuff happens once Nash meets Shirley Hoffman. He first meets her after Gregg Hodgkins turns up dead. It’s meant to look like a suicide, but Nash thinks the wife did it. He also thinks the wife is a touch telepath. His reasoning is not explored until a little while later, although he makes it clear that this is a skill the ancient Sumerians had.
All this while I’m still thinking that this is a book about time travelers.
Hoffman is Dikty’s secretary. Dikty puts her onto Nash because she’s an attractive young woman who might get him to talk. And boy howdy, does she get him to talk. Most of the middle of this book is just talking about ancient civilizations and, in particular, the Epic of Gilgamesh. Right around here is when I first made an important connection, namely that Gilbert Nash = Gilgamesh, but I was still thinking that this was a matter of time travel.
I’d like to note that this book spends a fair amount of time at the public library. I find this great because not only do I love public libraries in general, I love my public library in particular, and so this book actually takes place in my workplace. Except it doesn’t, for two reasons.
The inside-baseball reason that no one would care about is that the current Lawson McGhee Library building opened in 1971, which is the same year this revised edition of the book came out, so if Tucker was thinking of my library, he was thinking of the old location a few blocks away.
But the main reason it doesn’t take place in my library is that this book doesn’t really take place in Knoxville. I know what you’re thinking, so bear with me a minute here.
When a book is set in a geographical location that exists in real life, it can do so in two ways. The author can make the real-life setting a part of the plot, doing research and making sure their characters act within the confines of the real place and its physical and social geographies. The author might attempt to capture the “feel” of the place. This happens a lot with New york. Think of how many narratives you’ve read that have talked about the “real” New York. It’s a thing. They’ll usually reference certain streets. Now I, a resident of the flyover state that directly led to the world’s only aggressive use of nuclear weaponry, won’t necessarily get the meaning behind having our character meet another character on, say, 53rd street, but someone in the know or someone who felt like doing a little research would recognize that our character is probably somewhere near MoMA or Studio 54 or the setting of a Ramones song, with all the implications and overtones thereto.
The opposite of that is saying that your book takes place in a place, and that’s it. Everything else is made up and the book has no bearing to the actual location. At best, you get a generic reference to a stereotypical version of a city (Nashville is where the country music comes from, but I’m not going to bother to figure out what river runs through the city).
The Time Masters takes place in “Knoxville” because the author wanted it to take place near Oak Ridge. But it doesn’t take place in Knoxville. Wilson Tucker didn’t feel the need to learn about Market Square (“the most democratic place on earth”), or the historic Tennessee Theatre, or the creepy old graveyard at First Presbyterian right behind it that I love so much, or the oldest public library in the state, or the hotel that killed Hank Williams.
I guess we once had a pretty good college football team too.
I say this like it’s some kind of huge travesty but it’s not. It’s how 95% of all media works, and it’s not a problem at all. The important thing is the story, not slavish attention to real life detail. A story isn’t real life and it shouldn’t be. The story comes first. If the story warrants mention of real life detail, then that’s fine, use it. (But try to get it right).
Recommended Knoxville reading: Suttree by Cormac McCarthy, A Death in the Family by James Agee.
On the other other hand, you get movies and television shows that feel the need to really really hammer home where their thing is located, so every window in our protagonist’s apartment or office has a landmark outside of it.
Um, so what it all turns out is that Nash is an alien who crash landed on Earth about 10,000 years ago. At one point he inspired the story of Gilgamesh. Carolyn Hodgkins was another alien and she’s a bad alien and she influenced some cultures to do some bad things. There were other aliens that landed, but they’re all dead now. Nash’s alien biology gives him a very long life by human standards, but it’s actually a bit shorter than it should be because the water on Earth isn’t quite right. He and Carolyn need “heavy water,” which on Earth was a result of the nuclear program. Once he got it, though, it turned out to be too late and not useful so he’s resigned to dying eventually.
Carolyn, on the other hand, just wants off this rock. For years she’s been using her seductive powers and touch telepathy to gain information from scientists working on space travel. It turns out that there’s a secret space travel program being worked on in Oak Ridge that uses nuclear energy. The rocket should be able to get Carolyn back home if she’s able to steal it.
We learn all of this by sitting and talking. At the end of the book there’s a bit of action where Nash tries to stop Carolyn, but he fails. She’s able to steal the ship.
There’s a bit of a weird ending where it cuts to the ship taking off and changing course…and that’s it. That’s the ending.
But here’s a thing.
From the ISFDB page on this edition:
This first printing of the revised version contains the gutter code “B40” [verified] on page 185. It is also missing the last 4 paragraphs of the last chapter. These were restored in the second printing with a gutter code “C15”.
I checked, and yep, I have the first printing. I’m missing the ending of the book.
I’m not sure how important those last four paragraphs are, but I’m curious. It bugs me that I just reviewed this book without having finished it. Maybe that’s only a technicality, but it stings. So I’m asking readers: If you have a copy of this book with the full ending, would it be possible for you to get that page to me somehow? I’ll give you massive props.
There’s also a sequel that I might track down but that’s all on me.
This wasn’t a bad book, but it’s unlikely I would have cared enough about it to seek it out without the hometown connection. Tucker’s The Lincoln Hunters sounds like something I’d like to read. It has a fun-sounding premise. Hopefully it’s better told than either this book or Resurrection Days, which both had problems of structure and major problems of ending. Who knows?
EDIT: I’ve had a couple of people hit me up about the missing final paragraphs. Many thanks to Rimon Kade in the comments below, who also provided the jacket copy to the Signet first edition, and Jim Stokes on Twitter for the information.
Basically, Carolyn steals the ship and takes off. The narration switches to a thing that details the events as they occur according to how high the ship has gotten. It gets higher and higher and faster and faster. It would appear that Carolyn dies. This is not a particularly great ending.
I suppose it’s possible that the ’71 revised edition had a different ending from either of these Signet first editions, but I’m not sure how different it could be, or whether it would matter.
So many thanks to both of you for the information!
EDIT 2: I found the inside flap copy for this edition! It’s incredibly long! I’ve added it up top.