Way Station by Simak, Clifford, 1963
I have always loved the flash bang side of SF. I love the futurity of it all, and things like lasers, robots, spaceships and artificial brains figure big into that. I suppose that those were the things that originally interested me in the genre as a child, and it really has never rubbed off, because I still crave it regularly. But that is not all that I love about SF. Since my early 30's I have developed another side to my appreciation, and the softer, more humane stories that I used to eschew now fill my book cases and, I think, dominate these review pages. One of my favorite authors of all time, at least since 1998 - my early 30's - is Clifford Simak. Book-for-book and story-for-story I think that he most of all among all his brethren writers produced the highest concentration of good, literate SF. And while he did not exactly have a unique voice in the genre, he did easily place his imprimatur on everything that he touched. In the next few years I will be getting gradually to the bulk of his short SF - in fact I have already started writing about a few pieces already - but before I do that I thought it would be important to hit upon his two bright, shining masterworks, City, and this week's book, Way Station. City was the story of the indomnibility of the quest for knowledge, if not the human spirit, and a tale about how technology, time and competition can tear apart mankind's aspirations. It was epic in scope; an amazing look at mankind's true place in the universe. Way Station is great deal narrower in scope, but just as powerful in its message. It is the story of a solitary hermit named Enoch Wallace - a Civil War veteran who was given the gift of near immortality in exchange for labor: Specifically job duties as the station-master of a remote stop on an intra-galactic railroad. It is about one man's relationship with himself, his species, and the myriad denizens of the cosmos and the sacrifice that he must prepare himself to make to maintain what he considers to be an important status quo.
It was the mid 1960's and Enoch Wallace lived in his ancestral home in Wisconsin, and had since the end of the Civil War. His family was well respected and known, but that all ended over one hundred years prior when he began his new career, unbeknownst to Earthís governments. Wallace was selected by a Galactic Commission to maintain and run a way station in an intra-galactic teleportation network. The Commission, of an empire populated by many intelligent races, had elected to begin spreading into our galactic arm. Wallace was lucky enough to have encountered Ulysses, the alien creature charged with setting up the station. One hundred plus years later Wallace lived a solitary life. His only friends were his mailman, Winslowe, a couple of intelligent holograms (Mary and David) he designed using the station's computers when he assumed his post, and Lucy, a teenaged deaf-mute neighbor of Wallace's who had some pretty extraordinary psi-powers. With the high technology provided him by the station and its many systems, and the stable nature of his life, Wallace came to love his station in life. He welcomed visitors from other planets and sent them on their way regularly as they traveled between worlds served by Earth's way station, chatted with his hologram friends, and kept journals of everything he encountered. Wallace was a unique type of person who craved stability but also had an open mind; qualities which drew Ulysses to him in the first place.
Despite Wallace's happiness, all was not as stable as it seemed. Wallace had become a fixture in the local gossip mill, and some were beginning to suspect that he was some sort of witch. Those suspicions became inflamed when he offered Lucy a safe place to stay after she used her telekinetic gifts to hog-tie her father and brother who were torturing an opossum. The editor of Nature Magazine in England had also written to him recently asking why he had had an active subscription for over eighty years. The CIA, through an agent of theirs who was pretending to be a ginseng buyer, had taken notice of Wallace and was beginning to wonder exactly what he hid in his impregnable home. Their curiosity was peaked when they found and removed from Wallace's family plot out back the corpse of an alien who had died during a stopover on Earth. The removal of that corpse irritated a race of aliens called the Hazers, who were important in the Galactic hierarchy. More, when Wallace and Mary realized that over the decades they had fallen in love with each other; it was all they could do to keep their hearts from breaking because Mary was totally incorporeal; she was composed of nothing but light. Wallace also, using advanced statistical methods taught to him by aliens who had passed through his home and with data gathered from a variety of publications to which he subscribed, deduced that the Earth was headed towards an all out nuclear war. Then he learned that the once stable citizens of the Galactic Government were starting to bicker with one another, and had lost the feeling of adhesion that had kept them together for millennia. Ulysses revealed to Wallace that a very important religious icon, called the Talisman, had been lost, and because of it the Galactics were starting to lose their sense of safety and comfort in the universe. Ulysses told Wallace that it had become so bad that the Commission had become divided, and decided to remove the way station from Earth and instead concentrate on developing necessary infrastructure in the globular masses that orbited the Milky Way.
Way Station is about how Wallace solves all of these problems. In doing so the character did not learn, but rather reaffirmed a very important personal statement about his own humanity. Consider this: Wallace had lived for the most part without the benefit of other human beings for more than a century. He was totally self sufficient, hung out with advanced aliens all day, had grown a little disgusted with the way that American culture had developed after his war, and was jaded by the impression that other people in town had of him. He had been doing his job for so long, and had ceased aging for almost the entire time, that had he been a lesser man he would probably have lost his humanity.
He's an anachronism, something living from another age. No one fears him, I am sure of that. He's been around too long for anyone to fear him. Too familiar. He's a fixture of the land, like a tree or a boulder. And yet no one feels quite comfortable with him, either. I would imagine that most of them, if they should come face to face with him, would feel uncomfortable. For he's something they are not - something greater than they are and at the same time a good deal less. As if he were a man who had walked away from his own humanity. I think that, secretly, many of his neighbors may be a bit ashamed of him, ashamed because he has, somehow, perhaps ignobly, side-stepped growing old, one of the penalties, but perhaps, as well, one of the rights of all humankind. And perhaps this secret shame may contribute to their unwillingness to talk about him.
That was from the CIA agent's debriefing of other government officials. Despite these ideas, which were not far from the sentiments of the townsfolk, Wallace's real problem was not that he had turned his back on humanity. If he had it would have been easy for him to accept the Galactic Government's offer to remove him from Earth as payment for a hard job well done, and let him wander the cosmos, satisfying his curiosity. Wallace's real problem was that he felt a dual loyalty; a loyalty to his humanity, and a loyalty to the Galactic Government, a fraternity of races which Wallace saw as the future of man. This book obviously is about many things, but in this regard it is about what it means to be a human being, and how contact with other intelligent forms of life can change us so that the human is not quite human any more, but the other may be a bit more so. Itís about synthesis and how contact can make something greater than the sum of its parts.
I can look ahead and see, in some thousands of years, the knitting of the galaxy together into one great culture, one huge area of understanding. The local and the racial variations still will exist, of course, and that is as it should be, but overriding all of these will be a tolerance that will make for what one might be tempted to call a brotherhood.
Lots of others have called this book Simak's true masterpiece novel. I loved this book when I was younger, and it has stood up well to reread. It is actually one of my favorites, but I do not share the opinion that it is his best. I think that a lot of SF critics get caught up in what I call the Van Vogt Effect. Van Vogt was a golden age author who specialized in writing frenetic, high paced SF adventure stories that were draped heavily with social issues, but moved so quickly that he rarely had time to resolve it all. I personally never really cared for his writing, but plenty of others out there do; he is regarded as a luminary of the genre, and was very influential during the Campbell years at Astounding Magazine. Today I think he is looked upon as the father of a mode of writing that Simak may have been trying to emulate here. I cannot recall any other Simak story that dealt with so many different issues. Van Vogt famously (or infamously, take your pick) said that he tried to introduce a new issue every 800 words, no matter how far he had come with the last issue he was working with. Simak was not that frantic in the telling of this tale, but he did pile one thing on after another. By the beginning of the third act it will only be the more experienced reader's heads that are not spinning with overload. Simak, amazing author that he was, never let the story get away from him and succeeded in wrapping up all of the loose ends before the story was done. Granted, he wrapped up most of them by solving one of the bigger problems, taking advantage of the trickle-down effect of good-will, but wrap it all up he definitely did do.
I only have two problems with this book. One of them I think is big, the other is just me whining, but because of them both, especially the first, I cannot call this book a masterpiece. Here's what I think: The Galactic's religion in this book is based upon a device called the Talisman, which was invented by some guy thousands of years ago. The device, only one of which was produced, can only be used by a person who is a "sensitive," or a telepath. The sensitive could use the machine to have direct knowledge of the Galactic Consciousness. Not God, but something like that. The sensitive serves as a bridge between Scientology-like machine, and hopeful worshipper, who is calmed and placated by the mere knowledge of the existence of the machine, and even more so by being in its presence. I still have not figured out why the inventor was stupid enough to make only one of these machines. Of course, the inevitable happened. The one machine that kept the citizens of the Galactic Empire mollified and docile got misplaced, and everything started going to hell. Needless to say Wallace, who was pretty much trapped on Earth, had nothing to do with finding the machine, but after it was located he did suggest Lucy as a replacement sensitive, which ingratiated him to the Galactic Council, who then rethought the wisdom of a decision removing Earth from the intra-galactic network. I personally thought that Simak was a little ham-handed about this whole issue. The story was written at a time when Campbell, who was Simak's editor for other stories, had fully embraced psi powers and electronic access to The Almighty, but I'm sure I would have balked even if I had read this in the 50's. It is and was a low-grade form of SF pandering, which was invented by one of the most repulsive characters in the stable of golden age SF writers (Iím talking about L. Ron Hubbard here, not Campbell or Simak). Setting the distasteful aspects of it aside, what kind of a galactic society bases their entire faith on a single electronic device? We humans are practically protozoan to the Galactics, and we donít even do that with the internet. Heck, I even have two toasters, in case one breaks!
The other problem with the book had to do with the war. Wallace lived out in the middle of nowhere and had contact with the outside world only when his magazines were delivered. Simak mentioned the coming war once or twice in passing in the early pages of the book. Then all of a sudden in the last fifty or so pages it became a huge issue that was apparently so bad that the only suggestion that Galactic Central could come up with was the introduction of a pathogen that would turn all of humankind into moronic imbeciles for a few generations, making mankind incapable of global war and giving them a chance to chill out and reboot. I suppose that the suggestion was kind of interesting, but I was not impressed with the way Simak let the issue drag for so long, then just threw it into the mix of problems that Wallace had to worry about at the end. It just did not fit well with the incredibly detailed flow that he had worked up with all the other issues.
Otherwise, I have no complaints, and nothing but praise for Simak and this book. I think that another aspect of the book that the critics appreciated was Simak's voice. It's in this book that Simak really gave us a good, healthy dose of the Midwestern values that he really only alluded to before, in City. Things such as the care that a conscientious man has for other people and worthy institutions, the heart-driven labor that is necessary to preserve a valuable way of life in a time of change, to preserve a worthy thing for posterity and to guarantee later generations success, fighting and risking one's own self for a strongly held belief, and envisioning one's self as a vital cog in a great machine. These sentiments come through even more clearly than in any other work by Simak, or even Bradbury for that matter. However, if I am going to even try to apply standards in the analysis of these books, I have to apply them consistently. This book cannot receive a fifth star because of the problems noted above. Too bad, because it is otherwise a wonderful, awesome book and will likely stand for centuries as such.
Copyright © 2009, Gregory Tidwell