Way Station – Clifford D. Simak, Doubleday, 1963 (Originally published in Galaxy Magazine as “Here Gather the Stars” in a two-part serial. Hugo Award, best novel, 1964. (Amazon).
The premise of Way Station is about as simple as it gets—alien races in our galaxy have long since solved the interstellar travel problem by means of a device that transports individuals instantly from one planet to another, and it doesn’t matter if that planet is in the same solar system or halfway across the galaxy. The trick is that the transportation signal degrades under certain conditions and so some jumps require a temporary stopping point where the transport signal can be renewed and the traveler sent on their way, thus the Way Stations of the title. Every Way Station requires a station keeper, someone who can run the machines and greet the travelers and make sure they are sent on their way properly. When the aliens expand into our spiral arm of the galaxy, Earth is the perfect place for such a station, but it needs a keeper. Galactic Central chooses a local, Enoch Wallace, a recent Civil War veteran. His home is converted into one such station, which provides for all his physical needs and is a safe haven from the outside world. As long as he remains inside the station, he does not age at all, and brief errands outside only take a few minutes or hours off of his lifespan. Over one hundred years later, Enoch is still on duty.
Sounds a lot like a dream job, but of course it’s not that simple. Enoch was recruited by an alien that Enoch refers to as Ulysses who knew that Enoch was the kind of man who could deal with the idea of a galaxy filled with other species that are smarter and more advanced than we are, and to treat them with the same respect and courtesy he would show any other visitor. The problem is that the station, and Enoch’s role in it, must remain a secret. Earth simply isn’t ready to join the rest of the galaxy, as evidenced by Enoch’s prediction, bolstered by his study of alien systems of advanced mathematics, that the earth is headed for another world war. Enoch dreams of the day when Earth will join the rest of the sentient races of the galaxy, for he is still, in all respects save lifespan, a human. Enoch’s enforced solitude from other humans is only slightly mitigated by occasional trips outside the station to tend a small garden and pick up his mail. Enoch’s station may be in a relatively isolated area, but other locals have figured out that he doesn’t age and even one of the journals he subscribes to has noticed that he has been a subscriber for over eighty years. Despite Enoch’s best efforts, his human need for contact with the outside world is in turn drawing unwelcome attention to the station. People are now watching the station, trying to understand its nature, and some of them have begun to interfere. Worse, there is now a faction within the alien community who think moving into our arm of the spiral was a mistake in the first place. Matters come to a head when an observer from the CIA removes the bones of an alien who died in the station, unknowingly creating an interstellar incident. Can the Way Station survive?
Thank you, Mr. Exposition. I’ll take it from here. Now then—all of the above is just the plot. That is, it’s what happens on the way to the book’s resolution. Is it what the book’s about? No, that’s not quite the same thing, and also not really what I want to talk about in relation to Simak’s work. Way Station is often regarded as Simak’s best book. I won’t argue with that, since I haven’t read them all yet. I do think it’s a successful book, in one way better even than Shakespeare’s Planet, which isn’t so well regarded but I liked a lot anyway. I believe Simak had a better grasp of his characters in Way Station, and they—especially Enoch—are much more believable as real people rather than plot archetypes. The situation is interesting enough but, to be blunt, that’s just the excuse for Simak to do a lot of thinking out loud. Speculating about the nature of humanity, what it means to be human, what our role in the galaxy might be, or perhaps anything that occurs to him. For instance, the machines of the Way Station are basically matter transporters, three years before Star Trek, and already Simak was wondering about the implications of a machine that essentially reproduces a person at the other end, in this case leaving a dead shell to be disposed of at the point of origin. I would say such ponderings stop the action dead at times, but the truth is that this is the action. All the rest is framework, scaffolding to support a salable book while Simak goes after what really interested him.
I could be wrong about all of that, of course. For one thing, I never met the man. For another, the book is not the author and I should know that as well as anyone. Yet one can’t help feeling that, after reading a few books by a particular writer, you get a feeling for where their head is or was at, at least at the time. Not too long ago Simak was a topic of discussion on the Coode Street Podcast, on the subject of whether or not he was forgotten now. It’s an interesting discussion and I recommend listening to it. For my part I don’t think he’s been so much forgotten as there’s been a shift in attention in the field, as there always is over time. Whether it’s a buy-in to the illusion of progress in the arts—and it is strictly illusory, make no mistake—or simply the field’s pursuit of the hot and now, past masters inevitably go on the back burner, and that’s just the way it is. Still there, still simmering, and their influence present, but not a hot new writer and so not where our attention is. Then there’s the matter of Simak’s pacing. It’s perfect for the kind of reflective, thoughtful work he did. Not so good for pulling in a new audience when our current reading protocols, in competition with so many other diversions, demand very little in the way of attention span. So. Not forgotten. But widely read? Probably not.
That’s our loss.