Way Station, by Clifford D. Simak
Posted January 7, 2016on:
published in 1963
where I got it: gift from a friend
My friend Andy has been talking about Way Station for a while, but he’s always so vague. He would just tell me how good it is, and that it’s one of his favorite Simak books, and that I should read it. But he never actually told me what this book was about. Had he told me the premise of the book, I’d have read it the moment he gave me a copy.
It’s funny, this book is *exactly* what the title says it is about. In rural Wisconsin, Enoch Wallace runs a special kind of way station. It’s a place for the weary to rest for a bit, to have a bed for the night, and perhaps a cup of coffee in the morning before departing. The station takes up Enoch’s entire home, and he’s been running it now for, oh, about a hundred years. And when I say “weary to rest for a bit”, I mean it’s a stopping place for aliens who are jumping across the light years on their way to the frontier or back to their families. Some of them stick around for just as long as it takes to ready the machinery to send them back on their way, others have become friends with Enoch over the years, and purposely schedule their trips so they can spend as much time with their strange Terran friend as possible. He even shares his coffee with anyone who is willing to try it.
Way Station is a positively delightful novel. It’s easy to get into, fun to read, and joyously optimistic about life in the universes. If you’ve read The Dark Forest, this book takes practically the opposite approach towards intelligent life in the universe.
After the Civil War ended, after his father died, when he was living alone but not lonesomely, Enoch was approached by a something that looked like a man. This being confirmed Enoch’s navel gazing about life around other stars, about the community of the galaxy. He offered Enoch a unique job, that of running a way station on Earth. Not a job to be envied, Enoch could never tell anyone what he did, he could never marry, or allow people into his home that would become the station. He’d be in charge of following instructions, setting the machinery and dials to the proper settings for the environments different beings needed, for being available at a moment’s notice. He’d meet every alien who ever wished to pass through our Solar System on their way to somewhere else. And all the hours that he spent inside the station, he wouldn’t age.
Every day, Enoch walks the perimeter of his property. He tries to be outside for approximately an hour each day. He ages one hour each day. He has aged barely a week since the station first opened.
Even in the rural backwaters of Wisconsin, people start to notice that the man on the hill who lives alone and never had any children looks exactly as he did when they were a child. The moonshiners have started to notice. The CIA has started to notice. Enoch is quiet, and keeps to himself. He’s alone, but never lonesome. And he is most certainly not stupid. He knows he’s being watched. The watchers can do whatever they want, so long as they leave him the hell alone, and don’t ever attempt to get into his home. Enoch is a man outside of his time, and through no choice of his, the time of secrecy is coming to an end.
As much as I enjoyed the overarching plot line, it was all the lovely the little details that really made this book for me – an egg cracked in the coffee (it’s a Wisconsin/ Minnesota thing), the clannish families in the rural farming areas, and the idea that the aliens aren’t exactly “beamed” to Earth. Their patterns are loaded, copied, and built, molecule by molecule, and they embody these copies until it’s time for them to move on. What happens when they “beam” away? The body that they were in melts away, back into separate parts, to maybe be used again should that chemical make up be needed for someone else. Enoch journals about all the aliens he meets, he’s even learned some of their languages. This man has so much knowledge, yet he keeps to himself.
The plot rollicks along, with flashbacks of the beginning of Enoch’s career as a station keeper as a counterpoint to the present day story. A man of few friends, Enoch is sort of friends with a neighbor girl, a young woman who is mute and deaf. She has her own way of communicating, and a sort of magic about her. The two of them sometimes sit silently, sometimes maybe communicate through her own devised sign language. Enoch knows he can say whatever he wants to her, she won’t repeat it, and she can’t hear it. He gives her refuge from her abusive family. It’s sweet, the relationship the two of them have.
When one of his visitors brings him news of a very (and I do mean very!) serious problem, Enoch has to deal with his watchers, fix the issue, and keep the neighbor girl as safe as possible. There’s some fun tension leading up to the final scenes in the book, there’s a lot going on, a lot of timing that has to turn out exactly right. And I was laughing at poor Enoch a bit, it’s not that he’s an introvert (although he probably is), it’s that its been a hundred years since he had to deal with this many people at once!
There was one bit at the end that was rather predictable, but I was having such an enjoyable time with the story that I didn’t even care.
If you’re reading about this whole Vintage Month thing, and you have no idea where to start, Way Station is the perfect place. It’s accessible, entertaining, easy to get into, and has relateable characters. It’ll make you feel good about the universe again. Stories like this always make me wonder if there are station keepers on Earth, because you and me and all our friends, we’d never know, right?