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Wilson Tucker

Writer of bleak science fiction

Arthur Wilson Tucker, writer: born Deer Creek, Illinois 23 November 1914; married 1937 Mary Joesting (one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved 1942), 1953 Fern Brooks (died 2006; three sons); died St Petersburg, Florida 6 October 2006.

For most of his life he was almost two different people. As the author of at least 20 detective and science-fiction novels, Wilson Tucker was an esteemed professional writer from about 1940 until he published his last book in 1981. At the same time, as Bob Tucker, he was a full-time motion-picture projectionist who also served for 70 years as the most intelligent and articulate and sophisticated fan the American science-fiction community is ever likely to boast of.

In later years, Wilson Tucker became a writer from the past who was constantly being rediscovered; but Bob Tucker never really slowed down until illness immobilised him.

Arthur Wilson Tucker was born in the American Midwest in 1914, and not until his later years did he seem to lose a seemingly innocent sang-froid about the chances of genuine progress during the course of the American Century.

For SF writers of his generation, progress could be defined variously; but the heart of progress was the exploration and conquest of space. In January 2001 Bob Tucker wrote that the world he had just awoken into bore little resemblance to the transfigured world he - and non-American writers such as Arthur C. Clarke in 2001: a space odyssey (1968) - had so intensely anticipated. "I almost went back to bed," he concluded.

Like many of his contemporaries, Tucker lived in readiness for this climax of history. In 1933, while still a teenager, he took a job as a projectionist in Bloomington, Indiana, which he kept until his retirement in 1972. He also, in 1932, became a science-fiction fan, and began to write the fanzines that were, for many of his generation, his main claim to fame.

It is only in recent years that academic critics have begun to come to terms with the huge amount of intellectual activity - along with pre-blog gossip - that filled these fanzines, perhaps the most brilliant of them being Bob Tucker's Le Zombie (1937-75). As a commentator on the scene, he was witty and convivial; as a critic (he invented the term "space opera" in 1941) he was unfailingly incisive, and late in his fan career won a Hugo Award for his writing in this area.

As Wilson Tucker, he began more slowly, not publishing his first professional story until 1941, and never writing prolifically in the short-story format favoured by most of his contemporaries. His first novel, The Chinese Doll (1946), was a mystery, the first of 11, most published by Rinehart, as was most of his science fiction. Significantly, Rinehart was then little associated with genre fiction, and Wilson Tucker's association with the firm clearly demarcated his writing persona from his active fan life. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, his finest novels also demur from the insistent optimism about the future expressed by many of his peers.

His best early SF novel is almost certainly The Long Loud Silence (1952), a tale so bleak in its assumptions about the possibilities of civilisation after a devastating plague that the American versions were censored. Only the British edition printed a text which made it clear that the greyish, mania-ridden protagonist does, in fact, in the end, resort to cannibalism in order to survive. The throwaway casualness of the telling of this story is in fact a highly polished diversionary tactic; and the tale as a whole is a central science-fiction premonition of the true nature of the ruins of our Earth.

Two later novels are also successful at this level. The Lincoln Hunters (1958) takes a time traveller from an inimical imperial America of the future, and allows him to remain in the 19th century, with which he has fallen in love. The Year of the Quiet Sun (1970) takes its black protagonist the other way: to a dystopian future world about to drive itself to an apocalyptic disaster, as predicted in a book of prophecy from ancient times.

Tales like these won awards - Tucker was too popular a man not to be fairly treated - but they did consort uneasily with the overall structure of American science fiction, and he gradually lost his market slot. Resurrection Days (1981), Wilson Tucker's final utterance, reiterates the motifs of The Year of the Quiet Sun in a recessional mode, as a sleeper awakes out of suspended animation into a world Bob Tucker, and his legion of friends, would have found deflatingly bleak.

The last years of this complex, bonhomous, hard-drinking man were straitened by the kind of ailments that afflict the extremely old, though he kept in touch with a large phalanx of loyal friends.

John Clute