Classic review: Way Station by Clifford Simak

It is difficult to find a more enjoyable, wholesome and indeed delightful science fiction book than Way Station.  One of the most deserving Hugo winners, this short novel is full of inaction, takes place in a tiny setting that barely extends beyond a single log cabin, and yet is very overreaching in its concepts and introduces many science fiction elements that were adapted by other authors in their more recent works.  In the era of solar-system-sized artificial structures, military action, unabashedly fun and fast-paced space operas, zombies, vampires and other monsters, but also highly pessimistic outlook on the future of mankind, nothing feels better than to sit down with this quiet, unassuming and gentle story and spend a quality evening reading and digesting it.

The protagonist in this book is Enoch Wallace, who is over a hundred years old.  A veteran of the American Civil War, Wallace had returned home to Wisconsin and witnessed his family slowly die off.  After he was left alone with his quiet existence, he was approached by an alien whom he named Ulysses, who offered him a job: to maintain a transfer station for aliens in his log cabin.  His cabin would be equipped with the latest technology, and as long as he’d stay inside, he wouldn’t age.  In return, he’d have to prepare a habitable environment for all visiting aliens, and send them on their way when they are ready.  He’d also have to live a very lonely life, not allowed to tell anyone about the station or his job.

Wallace had been doing the work for long decades, until a few people, including a CIA agent, started noticing that Wallace hasn’t aged much.  CIA starts shadowing him, but as long as they don’t interfere, Wallace ignores them.  His hillbilly neighbors are giving him a little more trouble, especially once Wallace begins to protect their abused idiot savant daughter.  The plot begins to move when the CIA digs out a dead alien that Wallace had buried, causing an intergalactic incident.  At roughly the same time, Wallace finds out that the galactic community of species far more intelligent than mankind deemed humans too violent and there are strong inclinations to reset the clock by dumbing the population down to a cavemen-level.  And to make matters worse, Wallace, who has nothing but time on his hands, has learned and used alien mathematics to determine that the world is on the brink of nuclear annihilation.  In a short but hectic finale, with the help of an unlikely coincidence (the idiot girl saves the galaxy), and even less likely actions by the government (the CIA is actually helpful), all three issues are resolved and humanity is on its way to join the galactic community.

Despite my description above, this is not an action-packed book.  It is a very humanistic book, full of slow, deliberate and repetitive activities.  Simak describes Wallace and his walks around the cabin.  How he makes coffee, for himself and for his alien visitors.  How he meets the local postman and gives him pieces of alien wood to carve into sculptures.  A great amount of detail is dedicated to the visiting aliens.  Their physical appearance is described, but more attention is paid to their interaction with Wallace.  These aliens are by and large cosmopolitan and at best spend their time on Earth partying in the small cottage, at worst don’t communicate until they are sent on to their next stop.  And even towards the end, when all the action happens, it’s over so quickly that the reader doesn’t have the time to readjust from his comfort and become worried for the main characters.

Simak held a very optimistic worldview in his novel.  The vast majority of the aliens is friendly, and even those hostile to humanity seek not to conquer Earth, but to isolate it.  The US government and its institutions are competent and rational.  The CIA is actually helpful, making only honest mistakes.  Wallace is able to meet the top officials, who in turn are willing to accept that aliens exist and humanity is under their surveillance.  And individual people are noble, strive primarily for knowledge and want the best for others.  Except a few equally one-dimensional antagonists who are abusive drunks, but ultimately cowardly and easily dispatched.  This worldview is, in my opinion, the main strength of this novel.  It is pleasing to read, and despite no significant action in the first half, it becomes a page-turner.

Way Station also paved the way to some noteworthy science fiction concepts.  Probably the most visible one is the use of transporters, which destroy the body on one end, only to reconstitute it on the other.  This had been used in numerous books, TV shows, movies and video games since.  Here, it is described to great detail, and I could easily picture the Star Trek transporter in the book’s description.  Another example of a significant concept was the use of an advanced mathematical model to predict the future of the society.  Asimov took this into his Foundation series as the science of psychohistory.  There are other concepts strewn around, and it is always a delight to find and identify one.

Probably the only criticism I may have is the action itself.  All bad things happen at once, and then the resolution is way too swift and elegant.  When doing research for this review, I re-read the original story, titled Here Gather the Stars, which appeared in two parts in Galaxy Magazine.  I noticed that all action happened in the second part, which appeared two months after the first one.  It seems to me that Simak didn’t have the second part finished when he submitted the first half of the story.  He either didn’t know how to conclude his work in progress, or was advised by someone to add some action to the second half.  The action is a little jarring, and it changes the overall feel of the story.  Even so, the final outcome is gentle and delightful, but it may have been a little more so.

I’ve read many Hugo award winners.  There have been some great works, and there have been some not so good, especially the more recent ones.  I am actually curious whether the more recent works stand the test of time as well as the classics.  But I digress.  What I wanted to say is that Way Station is among the best Hugo award winners.  That may be because its tone is different.  It’s a feel-good book, which is a joy to read several times.  Among the slew of novels with depressing futures or packed with action, this one stands out as a book that will make you retain hope for humanity and the future.

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