The Story: [From GoodReads:]
Enoch Wallace is an ageless hermit, striding across his untended farm as he has done for over a century, still carrying the gun with which he had served in the Civil War. But what his neighbors must never know is that, inside his unchanging house, he meets with a host of unimaginable friends from the farthest stars. More than a hundred years before, an alien named Ulysses had recruited Enoch as the keeper of Earth’s only galactic transfer station. Now, as Enoch studies the progress of Earth and tends the tanks where the aliens appear, the charts he made indicate his world is doomed to destruction. His alien friends can only offer help that seems worse than the dreaded disaster. Then he discovers the horror that lies across the galaxy.
My Take: I found this novel while perusing a list of Hugo Award winners and decided it was a good place to start. The premise sounded simple enough – a Civil War veteran serves as the keeper of an alien way station. But the story itself results in a heartening portrait of Human curiosity and kindness.
Simply put, I love this book and it’s one of my favorite books. And I don’t say that lightly. It takes quite a bit to get me to love a book. But Way Station just strikes all of the right chords for me in terms of plot, characters, and themes.
Concerning plot, Way Station presents a split narrative that delivers both sides of the story’s coin, so to speak. The first narrative focuses on Enoch Wallace as he maintains the way station and avoids suspicions from his rural community. The second narrative involves government agents who seek to peek into Wallace’s life when it’s deduced that he’s lived far longer than a normal person would. Both worlds collide in a way that is organic and believable. Also thrown into the mix are side stories about some of the aliens Enoch encounters (namely his visits with Ulysses, who likes coffee) and of a deaf-mute girl who has a mysterious, almost magical, connection to nature. Overall, this novel isn’t long but it’s masterfully written with engaging characters, strong dialogue, believable dynamics, and elegant pacing.
Enoch, as the chief protagonist, is instantly likable. He takes his role as station master very seriously and is poised and polite when it comes to his interactions with extraterrestrials. But the pain and loneliness of living for so long in near isolation wears Enoch down and we witness moments when he’s at his most emotionally vulnerable. This is especially felt when Enoch generates ghost-like companions just to have someone to talk to. He knows he can’t converse with his neighbors, who harbor suspicions about him, so these self-generated creations have to suffice. Likewise, Enoch’s job is not an easy one, especially when the fate of the planet rests in his hands. In the end, Enoch handles matters in a mature, intelligent fashion but he’s not without personal flaws, which makes him human. Likewise, his relationships with others, chiefly Ulysses and the deaf-mute girl, present him as a genuine, caring, wise character who reflects what’s good about humanity.
Speaking of which, one major theme the novel deals with is, of course, human nature, both the good and the bad. When the U.S. government inadvertently meddles into alien affairs, Earth is set on a knife’s edge and it’s up to Enoch to prove the value of having a way station on Earth. In a way, the chief dilemma here (i.e. are Humans intrinsically violent or are they capable of compassion?) reminded me of the pilot episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, “Encounter at Farpoint,” where the god-like Q puts humanity on trial, insisting Humans have always been and always will be a savage, warring race, and challenges Captain Picard to prove him wrong. In the end, Picard and crew do prove Q wrong and show that Humans can be compassionate, so not everyone can be painted with the same blood-stained brush.
I bring this up because that’s essentially the dilemma here, too: the galaxy deems Humanity violent and dishonorable, and Enoch must prove them wrong. I will avoid sharing spoilers, so all I will say regarding the novel’s ending is that, while I suppose it’s predictable, it’s fitting and optimistic, very much like the events in “Encounter at Farpoint.” The novel proves that not all of humanity is fallen and that there is still good in the world, even in the most unsuspecting places and from the most unsuspecting people.
Language -A few minor, PG-level profanities are used sparingly.
Violence – None in terms of bloody violence or fight scenes though there are moments of peril/implied violence, especially as Earth’s fate hangs in the balance and a neighbor of Enoch’s displays violent/abusive tendencies towards other characters. Elsewhere, someone desecrates a grave by stealing the body (but we never actually see the thief in the act of his crime). Overall, nothing here ever goes too far or crosses the line of good taste.
Sexual Content – None.
Overall, Way Station is ultimately a warm-hearted sci-fi story with a rustic setting and humble characters. While the more cynical among us might dismiss this story as overly-simplistic or too optimistic, I enjoy it for those qualities. Sci-fi fans looking for a good, classic story that upholds the best about humanity will certainly need to check this out.