Friday, February 6, 2015

Review of Way Station by Clifford Simak

Why can’t we all just get along?  Because it’s complicated.  Because Billy Bob slept with my girl.  Because Sally called me stupid.  Because we need to keep gasoline prices down.  Because we’re animals.  Because the gods have deemed it so.  Because… I suppose I could take up the rest of this review with answers to that question.  But in the end, would any of the reasons be an overarching ideal that is inescapable?  Before you think too much about it, have a read of Clifford Simak’s 1963 novel Way Station.  Simple in presentation and simple in aim, it nevertheless carries the baton of hope humanity can overcome its tendency toward self-destruction.  (And yes, there are guns.)

Enoch Wallace lives in the extreme backwoods of rural Wisconsin in a time shortly after WWII.  Having fought in the Civil War, he is something of a human phenomenon; Wallace still looks like a thirty year old male.  But living so far from civilization, he’s been left alone, that is, until a CIA agent gets wind and decides to investigate.  Coming upon Wallace’s home while the man is out on his daily walk through the woods, the agent discovers that Wallace, interestingly enough, inhabits only one room of the old farmhouse, the remainder of the building blocked off with an invisible, impenetrable shield.  It’s the gravestone in the family plot beside the house with a most unusual grave marker, however, that really gets the agent’s attention.

The fact is, Enoch Wallace is an attendee at an intergalactic coffee bar.  Aliens coming and going from his home, he keeps a pot boiling on the stove, an eye to his manners, and a pleasant, accepting attitude toward the variety of extraterrestrial tourists and travelers who pass through.  Many visiting more than once, he’s built a friendship with a few, and the secret rooms of his farmhouse are filled with alien knick-knacks they’ve brought as gifts.  Wallace at peace with his rural life as way station attendee, what the CIA agent does with the knowledge he gains at his house upsets matters.  But little does the agent that things are also coming to boil in the great beyond.

One of the amazing facts of Way Station is that the entire novel is set in a farmhouse and the surrounding fields of Wisconsin.  Such a setting near the bottom of the list of typical science fiction backdrops, presented alongside the golly-gee relationship Wallace has with his mailman and the redneck rebellion that comes crashing down on the party, aliens, CIA operations, and world wars also feature.  Simak obviously a lover of nature and believer in its powers to soothe and teach, the fact he manages to pull off the science fictional narrative in such a rural setting is captivating for the time it takes to read the novel.  (It crumbles a little in hindsight, but in the moment, Simak has the attention.)

Getting a little preachy, Way Station openly displays its theological and political stance.  Universal spirituality underlying all we do and see if we’d just reach out to it, his politics are thankfully less subjective; there’s no denying humanity’s relentless killing of its own kind.  Written when Cold War tensions were escalating, Simak, like many others, lived in fear WWIII—complete with nukes—was coming sooner rather than later.  Directly addressing the foolishness of war and the cultural stupidity which allows war to happen, no one can say he did not do his humanitarian part in the anti-war effort.  Thus, despite how preachy the novel can occasionally be, the attitudes never force a narrow agenda intended to build fences.  Continually maintaining a view to humanity at large, Simak’s heart is in the right place even if his campaign lacks subtlety. 

In the end, Way Station is an open-hearted tale of one man’s observation of humanity shooting itself in the foot time and again, and eventually being in a place to intervene.  Simak waxes spiritual and political at turns, but never in sophisticated terms, resulting in a straight-forward story that wears its heart on its sleeve.  Like Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End, Simak sought to address the chances for mankind having a future in optimistic terms.  Fritz Leiber’s The Big Time covering very similar ground both thematically and materially, Simak attempts a less symbolic and more direct presentation of the follies of mankind, aliens the glowing mirror of advanced understanding our muddling brains have yet to catch up to.  So, can we escape self-destruction?  Well…


  1. Great review! It seems like you enjoyed this one, which kind of surprises me! I've learned that people either love Simak or get bored with him, but I'm a sucker for his optimistic humanism. I enjoyed Childhood's End for the same qualities, although it is less preachy, whereas Simak's preachiness is tolerable because he conveys the urgency of his fears for the future so well. His worries are palpable, even to this Gen-Xer. And what a great premise! Who doesn't want an alien to join them for coffee from time to time?

    1. Yes, there is a part of me that balks at the corn bred, Aww shucks mode that seems to guide Simak's writing. But like you, his humanism sees me through. His works offer a lot more for mankind as a whole than a lot of sf that currently wears the pc label. I would much rather indulgence in Simak's forthright innocence in Way Station than wade through a poorly written space opera like Ancillary Justice just because it does "new things with gender" that in fact have been done before with oodles more sophistication. But there I go getting cynical again...