the Little Red Reviewer

Way Station, by Clifford D. Simak

Posted on: January 7, 2016

way station2Way Station, by Clifford D. Simak (Hugo Best Novel, 1964)

published in 1963

where I got it: gift from a friend

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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?

22 Responses to "Way Station, by Clifford D. Simak"

This sounds like a wonderful pick-me-up for the doldrums of winter. I will look for a copy. I assume that vintage SF is sometimes found at the library, sometimes used books on Amazon? I’m so grateful for the Internet, which makes it easier to find these older gems.

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This is a Hugo-winning classic which is almost always in print — so, you’ll probably find it in most used book stores with even a minor SF collection. And, of course, amazon for a few pennies.

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If ebooks are acceptable, Open Road and SF Gateway both have editions currently.

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Open Road has it in print version too. I know they advertise themselves as an e-book company, but i’m seeing more and more of their titles in dead tree versions. yay!

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Thank you for the info. I’m so pleased that there’s an ebook version!

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SF Gateway unfortunately is not available for American readers — it is frustrating… alas.

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I know: I am doing a massive reread of Tanith Lee and they have the only in print editions of a lot of them.

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Online, for mere pennies😉 (3.48 including shipping for most SF paperbacks on abebooks).

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it was a much needed Door Into Summer, that’s for sure.

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Simak’s ‘All Flesh is Grass’ is also worthwhile – it tells a similar story, though if you like his pastoral style you’ll probably like this one too.

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REALLY sounds like my kind of story! When you first started describing it, I thought it wasn’t going to have much tension, but it sounds like that’s not the case. Now to find a copy!

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it starts out all mellow, and a smidgen slow, and then suddenly all hell breaks loose around the one person least suited to deal with it.

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Way Station is one of my favorite novels and I love Simak. Reading him is like a breath of fresh air amongst the human pessimism and technological optimism of other scifi writers of the time. I like that he could be critical without being disparaging.

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I thought he displayed a reactionary mindset in Way Station, so I’m not sure if he’s not pessimistic about humans, as you imply (if you wanted to imply that, that is).

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It’s funny you say that because I did hesitate as I wrote that. Admiral.Ironbombs and I have discussed as much on his blog, recognizing how unique his approach is to current-at-the-time events. I sense from his work a profound disappointment in humanity, but I also sense hope, and not what I would call reactionary as I understand the term, and far from a lot of the acid negativity (which I enjoy) from other scifi writers who were critical of militarism and the bomb. I see Way Station as a warning, not a definite judgment.

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I meant reactionary in the sense of “traditionalist, conventional, old-fashioned, etc.”, as in Way Station at times passages like the one I quoted in my review (“In the old days it would have been – what did you say, gentlemanly and on a plane of principles and ethics.”) pop up. They didn’t really read as hopeful to me, but those passages aren’t the only stuff in the book so… I like the distinction you make between warning and definite judgement, but I’m not sure if I agree with it. I’d have to reread it, but I don’t see that happening🙂

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Somehow I missed this, but I’ll remedy that. I’m fond of his “The Big Front Yard”.

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I’ve read some Simak, but I’ve never heard of this one. It sounds great! I’ll be putting it on my list.

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If you liked this one, you’ll probably like everything else he wrote—the midwestern pastoral themes are always there, sometimes mixed with a cynical bitterness. Most of his short fiction, Why Call Them Back From Heaven, City, and Time is the Simplest Thing are all excellent, though the novels he wrote in the ’70s and beyond were pretty meh.

Seriously, though, I love Simak’s work, I think he’s pretty under-appreciated these days, and I think your review is spot on… especially the last paragraph. Simak is very accessible, and his work doesn’t fit in some of the stereotypes non-genre readers might have of SF.

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Please erase this comment when done…
“…one of his visitors brings him new of a very…”
I think you lost an “s” at the end of “new”.
Thank you for sharing this review.

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that book review wins my award for Most Grammatical/Spelling Errors Not Caught Pre-Publishing.

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What a wonderful sounding book! Why is this book not better known it sounds great but I’m pretty sure I’ve never heard of it …. ahh, I just remembered – live under a rock!
Anyway, I think I will go and check out if I can get a copy of this!
Do you know throughout the review – the one thing that was going through my mind was – he ages one hour each day! Imagine. It’s almost like being immortal! I can’t help doing the maths on how many books you could read in a year – I know I shouldn’t focus on that particular little thing but I just can’t help it!
Lynn😀

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some of the books reviewed here were free ARCs supplied by publishers/authors/other groups. Some of the books here I got from the library. the rest I *gasp!* actually paid for. I'll do my best to let you know what's what.
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