What’s it like to be the protagonist of a mystery series? Everywhere you go, people die. Vacation? Murder. Big social occasion? More murder. Village fête? Very murdery. Spotting the clues and solving the crime when local police are stumped does not exactly win friends either. Mallory Viridian hates it. She’s had years of practice, and a testy relationship with police across North Carolina up to and including the State Bureau of Investigation. Normal people never adjust to murder. It’s debatable whether Mallory falls into the category of “normal,” given the number of premeditated deaths she had been in close proximity to, but her reaction is normal. She tried therapy — during a session the therapist’s wife murdered his secretary in the mistaken belief that they were having an affair — she tried religion — several, in fact.
“Miracles happen daily if we just open ourselves to it,” one priest had said while she was in confession. He hadn’t wanted to call it a miracle when, while hearing Mallory’s confession, a parishioner had been murdered in the church’s parking lot. The church had not admitted she was right; they instead accused her of orchestrating the crime. This was her eighth murder and she should have known better. (p. 11)
When Station Eternity opens in 2044, she has more than ten murders behind her. She’s adapted. “She had kept her distance from her neighbors and made friends only with the night volunteers at the local animal shelter. She shopped online or late at night in twenty-four-hour grocery stores. She tried to avoid groups of people at all costs.” (p. 13) She has a reasonably successful career as an author of mystery novels, mysteries based on the real crimes she has solved. The approach keeps her alive, and it does a good job keeping people around her alive too. But it’s “so, so goddamn lonely.” (p. 13) Which is probably why she lets a neighbor persuade her to go to a birthday party being held on a nearby military base.
The base was the center of American efforts to come to grips with a massive change in humanity’s place in the universe: about a year before the story begins, aliens had made contact with earth. The universe was not exactly teeming, but there was a whole interstellar society out there, with technology vastly superior to human efforts. When the aliens arrived, they made it clear that they were not sharing faster-than-light travel, but neither were they particularly interested in exterminating humanity. Earthlings were a bit odd in not forming symbiotic relationships with other species, which was far and away the galactic norm. For that reason, among others, they regarded Earth as something between a park and a zoo. They visited freely, disported a bit, and there was nothing that human governments could do about it. Humans were permitted to send one ambassador to a massive, sentient space station, the eponymous Eternity. Otherwise, they were confined to the one planet.
Aliens are far from Mallory’s mind; she’s much more concerned with the question of whether or not she will have an enjoyable evening that everyone survives. When the hostess announces a game of Werewolf, she follows her Rule Three of being Mallory in a social situation: get out of the room when something bad very obviously is about to happen. (p. 28) It does. Within a few minutes, as other guests are calling 911 and military police, Mallory has figured out most of the crime. Not that anyone will believe her initially, that’s another thing she has learned. The scene captures much of Lafferty’s style in Station Eternity.
[Mallory] took the well-worn business card and turned it over, reading the rude words on the back and then the official words on the front. She watched the waning light in the field at the edge of the base as she waited.
When the cops and ambulance made their loud, flashy arrival, she stood silently for a pat-down, and then handed the card to a detective. “You’ll want to call this man.”
“What the hell are you talking about?” the detective said. She was short, pink-skinned, and stocky, with her brown hair pulled into a messy bun at the nape of her neck. The badge she wore said MORRIS. “Call your own damn lawyer if you think you’re going to be charged.” She hadn’t looked at the card yet.
“No, I can’t call that number. You have to. And I guarantee if you don’t, things will get complicated fast.” Mallory pushed the card at her again.
“Is that a threat?” the detective asked sharply, and then she looked at the card and her eyes widened. “North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation. This is Fort Bowser jurisdiction, or Wake County at most. What does the SBI have to do with anything?” She narrowed her eyes and looked at Mallory. “Who are you?”
“Turn the card over,” Mallory instructed. Morris did so and read the words aloud. “CALL RIGHT FUCKING NOW—D DRAUGHN.”
“They won’t have an interest in your case,” Mallory said. “They just have interest in me.”
“You’re part of the case; you’re a suspect,” Morris said, handing the card back to her. She followed the other officers inside.
An officer remained inside one of the cars, talking on a radio with his eyes on Mallory.
“I tried,” she said to the officer, who looked startled. “Back me up when he gets here. I tried.”
Without waiting for an answer, she dialed the number on the card.
“This had better be an ass-dial,” a voice on the other end snarled.
“It’s not. I tried to get the detective to call you, but she ignored me.”
“How many dead?” (pp. 53–54)
Agent Donald Draughn arrives in about fifteen minutes, and Mallory tells him what she has seen, and deduced. He is not pleased. Mallory knows of an accessory, what the murder weapon was, but not who the murderer is. She knew one more person at the party, an old friend from college. He ran out of the house immediately after the killing. Draughn says that it’s a small base, he shouldn’t be hard to find.
“Yeah … this is the part you’re really going to hate,” Mallory said, wincing. She had been trying to figure out how to drop this bit of information, and she still hadn’t come up with a good opener, so she just told him, “You won’t find him. He’s been abducted by aliens.” (p. 56)
Lafferty tells the tale of the pivotal murder and Mallory’s personal history in flashbacks spread across the first few chapters. The main action of Station Eternity happens when she, too, has been picked up by aliens and taken to Eternity for reasons that she does not understand. On the other hand, it has solved her problem of being near a murder almost any time she’s around a group of humans, so she is not inclined to question the station’s reasoning too closely. No humans, no murders, all is well. Almost. There are two other humans: Xan, her college friend who ran away from the fateful party, and Adrian, humanity’s not terribly effective ambassador, with whom Mallory has a mutual aggravation society.
She’s made a couple of friends among the Gneiss, a rock-like species with a very peculiar life cycle. She earns some station money by allowing the Sundry, a hive intelligence with many insect-like instances throughout the station, to investigate her as an example of a relatively unknown species. There are several other species mentioned in the course of the story, including one that is a symbiont with the station itself and another that is responsible for most of the shuttles flying in and out.
Speaking of shuttles, Eternity has decided to allow a shuttle of humans to visit, the first of presumably many more to come, as humanity and the rest of galactic society get used to each other. Malory knows that that means. Adrian is like most people who don’t believe that murders happen around Mallory, or as Lafferty writes, “Not at first, anyway.” (p. 3) Adrian isn’t the only one who comes to believe.
The second half of the book picks up the pace considerably, as all of the elements that Lafferty has put into place start to bounce off of each other, causing more and more collisions. Mallory is in way over her head. The aliens have their own conflicts, and motivations that are difficult for humans to understand but that make perfect sense from the alien point of view. Station Eternity is at its best when Lafferty lets the bonkers setup rip and roar.
Doreen’s review for Criminal Element is here. She uses the phrase “stunningly smart series of mystery denouements,” and I can only agree.