As Way Station begins, we learn that the CIA has been monitoring Enoch Wallace for many years. He has committed no crime; he is no threat to national security. Instead they’re concerned because he is nearly 125 years old. He fought in the Civil War at the Battle of Gettysburg and no one can explain his elongated years, nor do his neighbors care to figure it out. What they find when they start to investigate his property more closely is alarming to say the least.
Turning a Phrase
Way station is a welcome respite from the pace and paleness of many of the other early Hugo winners. The way that Simak could create a sense of place and fill it in with the kind of details that stick with you, was something completely different than the other winners up to this point. Imagine you visited the same valley every summer, then one year you don’t make it until autumn and you see all the colors of the leaves and smell the crisp air and it is an entirely new place. That was exactly my experience with Way Station. Well…not literally, but so much SF lures you in with incredible science and fantastic spaceships or intergalactic warfare and just generally assaults the senses into shock and awe. Simak invites you in, pours you tea and introduces you to a character-led story that is both relaxing and as gripping as any high-flying SF.
I may have complained before that some, especially Zelazny, like to throw their readers into the middle of a story and let them catch up in their own time, likely many pages in. Simak eases you into a world which is every bit as strange, but helps you to feel so much a part of it you can’t help being interested from the very first page. Of course both styles are absolutely respectable methods for beginning a tale, but in this case, Simak introduces his characters with a grace and thoughtfulness that rivals any of the best literature (mainstream or genre). Just have a taste or two:
The noise was ended now. The smoke drifted like thin, gray wisps of fog above the tortured earth and the shattered fences and peach trees that had been whittled into toothpicks by the cannon fire. For a moment silence, if not peace, fell upon those few square miles of ground where just a while before men had screamed and torn at one another in the frenzy of old hate and had contended in an ancient striving and then had fallen apart, exhausted.
There were proud names that were the prouder now, but now no more than names to echo down the ages—the Iron Brigade, the 5th New Hampshire, the 1st Minnesota, the 2nd Massachusets, the 16th Maine.
And there was Enoch Wallace.
He still held the shattered musket and there were blisters on his hands. His face was smudged with powder. His shoes were caked with dust and blood.
He was still alive.
“His name,” said Lewis, “is Enoch Wallace. Chronologically, his is one hundred and twenty-four years old. He was born on a farm a few miles from the town of Millville in Wisconsin, April 22, 1840, and he is the only child of Jedediah and Amanda Wallace. He enlisted among the first of them when Abe Lincoln called for volunteers. He was with the Iron Brigade, which was virtually wiped out at Gettysburg in 1863.”
You could see the smoke right? Smell the gunpowder and just picture yourself among the peach trees? I know I could. And if that wasn’t enough to make you want to dive head first into Way Station, then he begins Chapter 2 with that second gem. Come on—that’s just too much fun!
Building a Universe
Amidst those beautiful descriptors exists some pretty loosey-goosey scientific descriptions and alien creatures. Simak was nowhere afraid to dismiss laws of physics or explanations of some of the underpinnings of the universe. In contrast to such precision in his storytelling elsewhere, is that a bad thing?
My first thought is that this would normally detract somewhat from any story. Certainly people always notice, and many are bothered, when some anachronistic bit of science or defunct company name pulls you out of the story. When alien technology is so foreign and unexplainable, or when something is so glaringly ridiculous, it can interrupt a story just as much as the worst anachronism.
This is exactly the kind of thing that happens in Way Station. What’s that—an amorphous blob in a tank, clicking at Enoch to leave him alone? How does that work? Not sure, but let’s not think about it too much and just move on. How about the suggestion to make everyone in the world too stupid to understand technology? Well, practically everything we use is some kind of technology and that so much of the meaning of our existence comes from our interaction with technology (so says Heidegger anyway) so I’m not sure exactly how that might work.
But you know what? Those “problems” are also what make this book wicked cool! Super-freakazoid aliens and wacky theoretical science are pretty rad in themselves and Simak, finds a way to make it rad-er! In Enoch’s universe, it is precisely the unintelligibility that contributes to his feeling of loneliness, hopelessness and on-again off-again pessimistic view of humanity. I mean, what could have had me questioning the story so much that it could have been difficult to read, actually ended up propelling the story and contributed to the feeling of dis-ease about the world. Yeah, that’s bad…Michael Jackson bad.
If the Clifford D. Simak Estate were looking to pay someone to just read and re-read this book over and over forever…I’d do it. No lie. I can’t say enough good things about this novel. It reads like literature, poetry sometimes, and sounds like SF. There are crazy aliens, sweet space travel, an awesome house, beautiful landscapes, complex personalities and despair at the human condition. Is there really anything more you could ask for?