I’ve decided I’m just crazy enough to try to read every book that’s ever won the Hugo Award for Best Novel…and, of course, that I want to share this insane experience with all of you. After a brief delay due to the demands of your pilot’s day jobs, we’re coming into Milltown, WI to check in on Enoch Wallace at his Way Station. Please keep all hands and legs inside the vehicle as we teleport forward through sixty-odd posts of science fiction, speculation and social justice!
(also known as Here Gather the Stars)
Clifford D. Simak
published in two parts in Galaxy Magazine in 1963
published as a novel in 1963
Enoch Wallace is an enigma, and quite probably an impossibility. He fought in the US Civil War, yet still appears in his thirties in the 1960s. The middle of nowhere, Wisconsin, is a pretty good place to hide, but eventually the government comes looking. Meanwhile, cold wars simmer on Earth and across the stars – and suddenly, the fate of the entire human race is in Enoch’s hands.
Warning! Mild spoilers ahead!
This book has a quiet sort of loneliness that draws you in and sets you adrift. It’s amazingly peaceful, even when the ray guns are firing (admittedly, not too many of those). It’s a great quiet read for a grey day when you don’t want to get out of bed.
Plot-wise, the book is a bit odd, but the language is beautifully atmospheric. It really captures the other-ness of Enoch, both as a human among aliens and as a human isolated from other humans.
The plot is…fine, I guess? It doesn’t resonate as well now as I imagine it must have fifty years ago; for one thing, flying under the radar is a lot harder these days, so the idea of Enoch’s escaping government notice is rather incredulous to modern readers. And the themes of isolation would be a lot harder to develop in quite the same way in a post-internet world.
But the biggest disconnect is the fact that the book takes place at a time and in a world where the threat of nuclear war with the USSR was very much on everyone’s minds. The Cold War is a huge presence in the book. For those of us who never experienced that world (I was a baby when the Berlin Wall came down), it’s hard to take it as seriously as contemporary readers would have. Yeah, yeah, nuclear weapons, Mutually Assured Destruction, blah blah. We know it didn’t happen, so the scare factor isn’t as real for us.
Which is not to say that the world is not a plenty scary place today, or that the thought of, say, North Korea with nukes doesn’t scare me silly. But WAR WITH RUSSIA is not the be-all and end-all of looming threats the way it once was.
That’s about all I’ve got for this one. Onwards to the social equality review!
Race: Er…I think since it’s small-town WI, all the humans are white. That’s it, really.
Gender/Sexuality: Less objectionable than usual, though there is the usual problem of extreme lack of females. One of them I’ll address below; one of them was a figment of Enoch’s imagination (Ethical. Issues. Full. Stop. Even if he did invent a male as well; he didn’t bloody well fall in LOVE with the made-up man, and make the made-up man fall in love with him). I did enjoy this line, describing an alien with whom Enoch felt a strong sense of fellowship: “He, she, or it – they’d never got around to that – had not come back again.” (p25) In the context of aliens, gender and sexuality are handled quite well…but back on Earth among us humans, ye patriarchy still holds sway.
Disabled/Other-abled: Lucy, who is Deaf, is a key character in the story. On the one hand, I love the way she is characterized. “She had a world, he thought, a world of her very own, one to which she was accustomed and knew how to get along in. In that world she was no cripple, as she most surely would have been a cripple if she had been pushed, part way, into the normal human world.” (p42) This is actually really cool, since the majority of the Deaf community do not consider themselves disabled; they just live in a different world from us hearing folks. (There’s even a film about planet EYErth – as opposed to planet EARth, but I can’t find a good link for it). On the other hand, Lucy does have a bit of a wonder-crip thing going on; she isolates herself from the rest of the Deaf community, and has magical healing powers, and a great spoiler-ific destiny. Because clearly we can’t have a Deaf person who’s just a character like everyone else.
OVERALL RANKING: 8 out of 10 (rankings subject to change as my sample size increases).
All quotes and page numbers are from the Old Earth Books centennial edition, published in 2004.