Friday, December 9, 2016

Way Station by Clifford D. Simak

Wisconsin’s ambassador to the galaxy
Clifford D. Simak’s novel Way Station, published in 1963, won the Hugo Award for that year’s best science fiction novel and has been recognized on various “all-time greatest” lists of sci-fi books. Simak, a Science Fiction Writers of America Grand Master, is an author whose work is consistently exceptional and rarely disappoints. Even though this novel was published over 50 years ago, it still reads as a work of brilliantly inspired speculative fiction, and its Cold War-era message remains relevant to the world we live in today.

Way Station tells the story of Enoch Wallace, a veteran of the American Civil War, who is chosen by an extraterrestrial governing body to serve as a sort of galactic innkeeper for interstellar travelers passing through our solar system. The means of travel is a form of teleportation, and Enoch’s rural home is transformed into an arrival, layover, and departure center for wayfarers of myriad alien species and cultures. The interior of Enoch’s house—the way station—exists outside of time, so he does not age when he is inside it. Eventually, a 120-year-old man who looks like he’s in his thirties begins to draw attention. His neighbors become suspicious of their weird, reclusive neighbor. A CIA agent hears rumors of Enoch’s agelessness and puts him under surveillance. These interlopers not only intrude upon Enoch’s privacy; their meddling may also threaten the delicate diplomatic relations between Earth and the rest of the galaxy.

The story is set in rural southwestern Wisconsin, where Simak grew up. He lived his entire life in Wisconsin and Minnesota, and many of his works are set in those states. It’s always refreshing to read a great work of American regional literature that doesn’t take place in one of the nation’s three biggest cities. Occasionally writers will set a work in a generic rural setting, perhaps designating a state such as Kansas or Nebraska for authenticity’s sake. Simak, on the other hand, really establishes a specific sense of place to his setting. You can tell he has had an intimate relationship with the region he describes and the people who dwell there. There is a profound sensitivity to his writing about rural life that’s reminiscent of the work of Willa Cather. Yet the science fiction elements he layers on top of this foundation are as visionary as any other writer of the genre. He judiciously understates the sci-fi elements of the story in order to emphasize the literary over the sensational. A writer like Fritz Leiber would have populated his way station with all manner of far-fetched freakiness, resulting in a weird-for-weird’s-sake view of intergalactic contact (as in The Big Time, for example). Simak, on the other hand, focuses on the humanity in his characters, even those who aren’t human. He aims for more than just thrills and entertainment, instead imbuing his story with an admonishing message of cautious hope for mankind.

Sometimes the story goes off into tangents that seem irrelevant, but eventually Simak brings them back full circle to become integral to the main thrust of the plot. Though quite suspenseful for most of its length, the story lags a little toward the end, and some conflicts are resolved a little too conveniently. Nevertheless, this is a great work of science fiction truly deserving of the accolades it has received. As good as this novel is, however, Simak’s true calling is short stories. If you haven’t done so already, check out Open Road Media’s excellent series The Complete Short Fiction of Clifford D. Simak, which is projected to amount to 14 volumes of this master’s work.
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