Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Genre Character of the week: Enoch Wallace

Thinking back over the dozens of stories I've read in my life featuring immortals, a couple observations come to mind. First: Immortality is bad - in stories it tends to be used as a punishment or something the immortal is trying to escape from. Second: even the value of life when you live forever comes down to the little things. My favourite immortals in books tend to be the most human ones (sorry vampires), as I find them more relatable. Looking at all the great immortal characters I've read about over the years, my favourite, hands down, is Enoch Wallace, the protagonist of Clifford D. Simak's novel Way Station.

Taking place in 1963 (the year it was published) Way Station introduces us to Enoch Wallace, living a small cabin in the woods of Wisconsin, who for some reason is being monitored by a government agent. From the outside, everything about Mr. Wallace appears to be normal, just a middle-aged man, living a quiet life alone in the woods. The government has become interested however, because Enoch is listed as having fought in the American Civil War (or War between the States depending on your point of view), and as that was almost a hundred years ago, how does he still look thirty?

The answer (which is given very quickly - I'm trying to be light on spoilers) is fairly simple. Enoch's cabin is a way station, a stopping point for Galactic transportation of people and products. Aliens stop by, mail comes through, Enoch makes sure everything works according to code and in exchange, he has been granted immortality.

Unfortunately, this is all about to change. Part of what I love about Enoch is although at first, due to his immortality he is disconnected from humanity (initially he actually looks down on people, both individually and as a species), but over the course of the novel begins to understand everything that makes humanity so wonderful.

I love the fact that this high-concept SF book (it talks about the Cold War, war in general, and the value of human beings as a species) really makes the character development of Enoch it's focus. His journey from shut-in, haunted by his ghosts, to functional human being, who begins to care deeply for the people around him blew me away. Enoch is a quiet man, put in an impossibly difficult situation, and like the best people I've ever known, finds a way to shine.

In 2004 the movie rights for this book were purchased, and I would definitely turn out to see how this book, with one of my favourite characters in SF, is adapted to film.

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