The Way Station (originally called Here Gather the Stars) by Clifford D. Simak was a pleasant and enjoyable yarn. That’s the best way I can think to describe it. The story of an American Civil War Veteran who manages an interstellar way station is well told and the characters especially Enoch Wallace, the previously mentioned veteran, are relatable characters. The Way Station was just nice to read.
As I wrote those lines it felt like I was damning this book with faint praise but that really isn’t my intent. Simak’s The Way Station (also called Here Gather the Stars) does what a number of Hugo Award winners try to do and fail: tells a story with a message without bludgeoning the reader over the head with it. For perhaps the five of you that regularly read this blog, you may remember that the 1955 winner They’d Rather Be Right (or as I called it They’d Rather Be Preachy) is the most egregious offender in this regard though it is hardly alone. A Stranger in a Strange Land by Heinlein also had this problem, though Heinlein was a good writer so his mouth piece characters actually seemed like people (most of the time). But Simak doesn’t do this. The Way Station deals with fear of nuclear holocaust, love over violence, and multi-species interaction without a gentler manner.
As mentioned before, Enoch Wallace is an American Civil War veteran who manages an interstellar way station. The way station is in his Wisconsin boyhood home, which has been covered with an indestructible film to protect it from the elements and intruders. The building also slows down time meaning that Enoch has barely aged in 100 years. The way stations transmit the biological information of the various alien travelers and recreate them at each stop. When they leave, the body stays behind and the biological material is recycled to be used again. Enoch spends much of his time conversing with these travelers until they move on. The aliens are all unique and interesting. Many of them are not even close to human which is something I have always liked. Too much science fiction is Star Trek-like with their aliens: are just humans with pointy ears. When he is not visiting with the passing aliens, Enoch walks in the woods, reads, spends time with holographic friends, and plays in a simulated shooting gallery.
For most of its length, The Way Station seems to be composed of somewhat unrelated subplots until coming together at the end. These plots include intrusions by a government agent, a deaf mute girl with strange powers, and a looming nuclear war which is causing concern among the galactic community that humans need dumbed down until they can be less violent. It all works together nicely with leisurely pace that makes for a nice relaxing read. It’s not to say that there are no stakes and that Simak doesn’t make them seem real because he does. Just the pace is so perfect that when events start to get serious I felt I knew the characters and the world so it all had more meaning.
I especially liked the character of Enoch. Partially, I must admit, because he reminds me of me. He loves to meet knew new and different people (in this case aliens). He is voracious reader and cares about the world around himself even though he barely interacts with it. Enoch is not without his flaws though. To help combat loneliness, his house produces holographic friends to keep Enoch company. These friends are computer generated images of people he knew from his time before he became the keeper of the way station. One of them is a friend of his from the Civil War. The other is a woman, who is not one woman Enoch knew but a combination of three women. The parts with these always seemed saddest of the book as showed how isolated and alone Enoch is and how he yearns companionship. Over the course of the book, Enoch lets these two people go. I felt it was the right thing to do but I felt remorse for his loss.
While the threat of nuclear war reminded me that the book was written in the 1960s, for the most part, The Way Station feels timeless and was an enjoyable story. I think I will have to check out more of Mr. Simik’s work.