Way Station by Clifford D Simak
(Victor Gollancz SF Collectors' Editions, £9.99, 189 pages, paperback; first published 1963, this edition 19 October 2000.)
There was a time between the early 1950s and the mid-1960s when every novel by Clifford Simak seemed to capture the true magic of science fiction, conveying often quite complicated ideas with an astonishing readability and flow, and displaying a delightful expertise in capturing mood and atmosphere -- most often the mood and atmosphere of the American Midwest, which seemed to be Simak's natural territory.
Time and Again (1951), City (1952; in fact a fixup of stories from the 1940s), Ring Around the Sun (1953), Time is the Simplest Thing (1961), They Walked Like Men (1962), Way Station (1963) and All Flesh is Grass (1965) -- one by one they came, and one by one they delighted. And then, quite abruptly, he seemed to lose it. His novels from Why Call Them Back from Heaven? (1967) onwards are generally enjoyable enough (although progressively less so), yet give the impression of a writer content to tread water.
Most of the novels of Simak's Golden Age are full of action and drama. In this context Way Station, often argued to be the greatest of them, is the odd one out. For approximately the first half of the book -- perhaps more -- the plot is virtually static, the concern being to set up and explore the situation in which the action of the later pages, such as it is, can take place. This of course sounds like a recipe for disaster -- one is reminded of the writer manqué in George Gissing's New Grub Street (1891) who plans (but somehow never quite writes) a novel about the owners of a corner shop who for three volumes do nothing but own their corner shop -- and yet Way Station is compulsively readable for all its seeming lack of event. Because what Simak succeeds in doing is to give us a galaxy-spanning space opera all within the restricted confines of a lonely Wisconsin farmhouse.
Enoch Wallace is the occupant of that farmhouse. He was of age to fight in the American Civil War, but soon thereafter, his folks having died, he was approached by a representative of the Galactic Council and asked if his home could be converted into a way station for matter-transmitted travellers through our spiral arm of the Milky Way. Agreeing, he received the gift of immortality, but at the same time had to accept the burden of eternal loneliness, for no human being may ever be permitted to share his secret. Until now, when a covert US Government agency has become intrigued by this unaging eremite...
It might seem that the stage is being set for a tale of derring-do between the aliens and the snoops, but in fact the plot elements concerning the Government agency are really somewhat tangential, serving partly as a component of the tale's resolution and partly as a quasi-catalyst for the rest. More to the point are the political and religious shenanigans among the member species of the Galactic Council, and the way in which they reach out to affect and eventually focus on Wallace and his humble way station. Like Wallace, we do not directly experience these crises and their consequences until close to the end of the book: instead they are related to us by various of the visiting aliens, and we actually see only the tiny but crucial part of the whole that concerns Earth. In the process, however, we are treated to sketchy details of enough alien civilizations and biologies to spark off at least a couple of dozen other, more extrovert space operas.
This is not a flawless work (in his rush towards the resolution, Simak indulges in some pulp plotting), but it is nevertheless a mightily impressive one. Long after the plot itself has faded from the memory -- this reviewer could remember nothing of it after thirty years -- the situation delineated in the novel remains indelibly imprinted, as does the eloquent capturing of Wallace's solitude, which is not joyless, and of his timelessness of mind. In terms of human society he is an anonymous cipher living out a meaningless, monotonous life; in terms of the true reality he has a richer existence by far than any human before or since. And it will continue to become richer, and to enrich him, for all eternity, whatever the transient events of the world around. It is actually a disappointment to the reader that the novel's resolution -- which in virtually any other tale would give us the typical sf adrenaline rush as horizons are suddenly hugely expanded for humanity -- must inevitably lead to a disruption of this curiously idyllic status quo.
Way Station, the most unusual space opera in all of sf's canon, is a book to treasure, and one to re-read rather more often, perhaps, than once every thirty years.
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© John Grant 24 March 2001