Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Review - Way Station

Way Station
by Clifford D. Simak
1964 Hugo Winner for Best Novel

The year is 1964, the world is changing, and science fiction is changing with it. The pulp adventurers that fueled that past decades are fading. The past three Hugo awards went to an experiment in mysticism and writing, a novel that could only be more hippie if it had a peace sign on the cover, and an examination of the roll of religion in preserving knowledge through dark times. And then came Clifford Simak's Way Station.

Way Station is a bit of a throw back. It has more in common with science fiction of the 40's and 50's than it does with the 60's. It's a pastoral novel; there's some conflict but it's minor and dealt with easily. It features what might be the last antagonistic government agent who acts reasonably in these novels (I don't recall any others but there may be one or two). At the same time, Way Station reflects the best of those earlier days of science fiction. It's populated by likable characters and interesting aliens. The story is a hopeful one, that once mankind can find peace the wonders of the universe will be ours.

In the backwoods of Minnesota there is a man, Enoch Wallace, who lives in a small cabin by himself. He leaves his neighbors alone and they leave him alone. His only regular contact is with his postman who he gifts regularly with blocks of exotic wood. Enoch is also a Civil War veteran and does not appear to have aged since the war ended. He had become the manager of a Way Station, a stopping point on a galactic teleportation travel system (apparently teleportation in this case is not instantaneous), and he only ages when he's outside of his cabin. Eventually the fact that he hasn't aged comes to the attention of a government agent who sneaks onto Enoch's farm and disturbs the operation which could have severe consequences for the Earth as it teeters on the brink of another World War. Enoch's estrangement from humanity has to end so that the world can go on.

Most of the book is just details of Enoch caring for the way station. The aliens he meets, the gifts that are exchanged, and the glimpses of worlds beyond that are relayed through the travelers. This is where Simak is at his best and his normal humans simply aren't as interesting as the array of beings that stop for a few hours on Earth before going on to their destination.

Of particular interest to those interested in accurate predictions in science fiction novels is the virtual reality video game that Enoch plays toward the end of novel. It is effectively a first person shooter moved virtual and while it has a lot in common with the shooting galleries that did exist at the time there are elements of interaction that will be very familiar to modern readers.

If I have any complaints it is that some things are just too simple. One of the major conflicts in the book is resolved simply by Enoch asking politely. Other major elements are introduced and resolved within pages. Enoch is separated from humanity throughout the novel but I never get the impression that it is a major hurdle for him to overcome.

Really there isn't much to say about Way Station. Simak didn't lay heavy themes down, set up controversial philosophies, or try to say anything particularly deep about humanity. He just did science fiction is the good, old fashioned mold: an interesting premise, interesting characters, and a story to hang them on. I enjoyed Way Station and I think anyone who enjoys science fiction of the golden age would like it too. We won't see anything like Way Station again in the Hugo winners; it was the last of a dying breed.