As a huge fan of Clifford Simak’s novel City, I was excited to read more of his work. Luckily one his other novels, Way Station, was also on my list. Often considered Simak’s most famous novel (it won the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1964), Way Station tells the story of an old Civil War veteran who is recruited by an Alien creature to manage a secret interplanetary travel hub for creatures throughout the galaxy. And while it doesn’t match the imagination and brilliance of City, it does offer enough compelling characters and interesting situations to make me recommend it to readers who like their Science Fiction thoughtful, quiet, and meditative rather than explosive and action packed. It also does a nice job subverting our stereotypes of rural people as simpletons and half-wits, uninterested in learning more about the world (and the universe) around them.
Way Station Summary: Enoch Wallace is a veteran of the American Civil War, having fought at Gettysburg and returned home to live a reclusive life in a rural area of Wisconsin. Although the novel is set years later (probably sometime around 1960), Enoch still looks as if he is 30 years old. We soon find out that he was chosen by an Alien named Ulysses to operate a way station that serves as one part of a vast transportation network that connects civilizations throughout the galaxy. Although the station is located on Earth, Enoch is told that human civilization is not yet ready to join the fraternity of Galactic races, which means that the way station must remain a secret. Located inside Enoch’s modest home in a remote area, the station consists of a gaggle of Alien machines and contraptions designed to receive galactic travelers and then pass them along to the next way station along the line. As the operator of this particular station, Enoch has gotten a chance to meet and interact with hundreds of different space-faring races of all shapes and sizes, and has even managed to become friends with some of the more frequent travelers. While describing how the station works, we also learn that time doesn’t move forward for Enoch while he is in the station – a fact which explains his youthful appearance even after more than 120 relative years.
With his youthful, questioning mind, Enoch tries to learn as much about his unique visitors and their respective cultures as possible. They often bring him strange gifts from other worlds and he rewards them with a cup of coffee, which apparently is one of the most rare and delicious things in the universe (I can’t disagree). While studying one of his visitor’s culture’s unique mathematics, he sees a high probability that human civilization will be destroyed by nuclear war in the near future. Even more troubling to Enoch than the fact that millions may die in the war is the idea that this act of aggression could forestall Earth’s entry into the Galactic union. In addition, he also learns from his friend Ulysses that some members of the Galactic counsel want to close down the way station on the “backwater” world of Earth for good. To someone who has grown to appreciate the vast knowledge and diversity of races that the Galaxy holds, the idea of Earth losing out on this opportunity to join the co-fraternity of races is almost too much to handle. As the action comes to a head, Enoch is forced to contend not only with enemies from outside of Earth, but also from government forces and local hotheads who have become suspicious of his longevity and curious about what’s going on in his little shack.
Way Station Review: While the plot deals with Galactic forces and strange, otherworldly beings, the real heart of the story is Enoch himself. Although he lives near intolerant hillbillies and shares a planet with aggressive humans who are motivated by power and greed, Enoch is an inherently good man and sees salvation in the shared unity and decency of all races (both human and alien). That desire to form a connection with something greater than himself stems in part from the loneliness and isolation he’s felt over the past 100 years as the only human to know of the existence of extraterrestrial life. As we are told about friends and family (and lovers) that have passed away overs the years, we come to have deep sympathy for Enoch and the burden that he has had to bear. Simak does a great job drawing a connection between Enoch’s loneliness and the plight of humanity – all alone among the stars and searching for meaning and connection with something bigger. And while the book may not be as fast-paced or action packed as some of the others on this list, I’d have to say it is still one of the more satisfying reads that I’ve had in a while.
Buy Way Station by Clifford Simak