|Clifford D. Simak|
|Victor Gollancz, 189 pages|
|A review by Rich Horton
Way Station shares with The Fountains of Paradise a rather mystical approach to a future in which the brotherhood of humans and aliens is envisioned. In addition, the author of each book was about 60 when that book was written; both books feature noticeably mature characters, and their concerns seem of a parallel maturity. Way Station is the story of Enoch Wallace, a reclusive man living in the Southwest corner of Wisconsin. The book is set about the same time it was published (early to mid-60s), although we are briefly introduced to Wallace at Gettysburg. Then a U.S. agent is revealed, who has tracked down stories about Enoch that prove he is 124 years old, the last survivor of the Civil War, though in appearance he is perhaps 30. We soon learn Enoch's secret: he was chosen by aliens to operate a way station of their interstellar teleportation network. Earth is not yet ready for membership in the Galactic co-fraternity of races, so Enoch must keep his station secret.
So he has done for about a century, while himself meeting many strange beings, and becoming close friends with a few. He has also learned some alien science, which has convinced him, to his despair, that Earth is heading for a disastrous nuclear war, which, if it does not destroy human life, will certainly delay any possible entry for Earth into the Galactic union by centuries. And now, as the story proper begins, several different threats are coming to a head: the U.S. government has discovered Enoch, and will inevitably try to figure out what's going on at his house, and they have also tampered with something the aliens hold dear, threatening retribution; while at the same time the Galactic co-fraternity is fraying at the edges: riven by uncharacteristic political strife, in which Earth is a helpless pawn; and finally, some of Enoch's less desirable neighbours are threatening to make his life difficult, because he has befriended their deaf-mute daughter, who may have strange powers.
Thus Enoch is faced with a crisis in which he has several unpalatable choices: abandon Earth and its way station; or abandon the way station and return to Earth society, thus losing his connection with his alien friends; or perhaps even ask the Galactic society to take drastic action regarding the capacity of humans to make war. And then the intrusion of some of the alien political actors seems to make Enoch's choices even less desirable, while forcing him to a confrontation with elements of both the alien and human bad guys.
The story is well-told and interesting in itself, but the value of the novel lies more in Simak's portrayal of his central character, Enoch Wallace, and especially in Simak's advocacy of unity between all races, human and alien, based on common "humanity." In the first case, Simak portrays Wallace's honesty, decency, and above all, his loneliness -- very effective and very moving. In the second case, Simak manages to show decency and "humanity" in all his characters, aliens and humans, and to pull off a mystical conclusion emphasizing the value of cooperation. It's a very quiet book (quietness seems a Simakian virtue), but it's still involving and fast-moving, with plenty of SF heft to its ideas, and plenty of emotional punch as well. It's not one of the better known Hugo winners: and on encountering it I think it should become better known. Highly recommended.
Rich Horton is an eclectic reader in and out of the SF and fantasy genres. He's been reading SF since before the Golden Age (that is, since before he was 13). Born in Naperville, IL, he lives and works (as a Software Engineer for the proverbial Major Aerospace Company) in St. Louis area and is a regular contributor to Tangent. Stop by his website at http://www.sff.net/people/richard.horton.
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