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210 pages, Paperback
First published June 1, 1963
"For years I've tried to understand and to conform to the ethics and ideas of all the people who have come through this station. I've pushed my own human instincts and training to one side. I've tried to understand other viewpoints and to evaluate other ways of thinking, many of which did violence to my own. I am glad of all of it, for it has given me a chance to go beyond the narrowness of Earth."
Way Station by Clifford D. Simak was originally serialized under the name Here Gather the Stars. It won the 1963 Hugo Award, and it's one of the first books I read in my renewed push to read all the Hugo and Nebula winners by the end of 2016. I am extremely glad I read this now. I am about to read many novels from the 50's, 60's, and 70's, and I have sometimes dismal expectations of the qualities of older science fiction. But Way Station was really, really good.
Enoch Wallace is a Civil War veteran who hasn't aged since 1865. After the war, an alien recruited him to man a way station on Earth for a galactic federation's transit network. They converted his family's farmhouse into the station, inside of which time seems to run differently. He only ages for an hour each day when he takes a walk to collect his mail and chat to the mailman. In 1961, a CIA agent stumbles upon the story of the local man in Wisconsin who hasn't aged in 100 years and investigates.
When the CIA agent explores Enoch's family cemetery, he comes across two normal headstones - for Enoch's parents. And the third? The inscription on it startles him, and he takes the buried body. Only, taking this body has repercussions for humanity, the galactic federation, and possibly humanity's chance at the stars, which Enoch has been so carefully, solely paving a way towards. Enoch has to recover this body, which he buried with respect and dignity.
The story beautifully weaves between Enoch's past and present. It's quiet. Enoch is an old-fashioned man, in his habits and thoughts. He also lives at a far remove from the modern world, though he is progressive in some respects. It takes an extreme transgression to rile him up and get him to abandon his routine.
There are many classic sci fi stories about how humanity wishes to become a space-faring race, and generally an alien species arrives to gift humans with uplift or an invitation. Childhood's End by Clarke, for example. Way Station is similar to this tradition (and here I know I speak with very little knowledge!), but I think it's beautiful in its approach.
The unusual bit is that Enoch is a normal man. He is actually more normal than most protagonists I've ever read in a science fiction novel, which so often are about the starship captains, the brilliant scientists, and frankly, the privileged few. Here, alien contact and humanity's future is not directly in the hands of scientists or government bureaucracy! It hangs on one man's choices and actions. It lacks hubris or arrogance or even grandiose gestures. Privilege is there, I suppose, but it's very unconscious. Once again, Enoch is old-fashioned, and the older courtesies play a part here. He possesses some admirable qualities of dignity and respect, well evidenced by how he tries to mindfully accept even the most outlandish, disturbing, or grotesque alien species he meets as station master. He wishes to befriend them and learn from them, to well-represent and provide for his species.
Since this is older SF, let's talk about the ladies. I have good things to say here. Let's start with the baseline: This is a white male story. All the aliens are presented as male. Almost all the humans are male. But there are two female characters.
First is Lucy Fisher, the mute-deaf daughter of what I can only describe as poor Wisconsin white trash. She's Enoch's neighbor and they meet on friendly, equitable grounds. She can't communicate, and yet they still talk. She has a hint of strangeness, etherealness, to her. Enoch suspects she can detect or feel something special. Lucy plays far more of a role than just a damsel in distress (Enoch does have to rescue her from familial abuse at one point), and her importance in the critical moments at the end surprised because I truly thought it would be Enoch to play this role! I want to note that I was also genuinely, happily surprised that Enoch does not see her as a love interest. She's not right for him. He appreciates her youth and attractiveness, but honestly I think he views her as a child. And he should. He's 100 years older than she is! He may contemplate but never act on any attraction.
The other character is Mary, one of the two "holographic" characters that Enoch has imagined using alien technology. Mary is an amalgamation of two women from his past: a striking, strong Southern belle he glimpsed during the Civil War and a woman that he was going to marry, but who married someone else while he was at war. His love for this holographic woman is unrequited. When she and the other holograph reach sentience, they turn away from him - with reasons. And once again, she is not the typical love interest. There's a rather heart breaking decision that she and Enoch come to about their relationship. Mainly, I think, that it is unbalanced love. And she is the one who says it first. She makes that decision.
Enoch is a lonely, solitary man, because of and despite his job as station master. He's cut off from humanity because he must keep secrets. His closest human bonds are with his mailman and Lucy. He has lost everyone else, even though he seems to care so much about humanity as an abstract whole. He meets a constant stream of aliens and has good, cheerful times of comradeship with many of them, but still something is missing.
This is humane science fiction. Enoch Wallace was a good man and a good character. In the 1960's, this is the type of man I'd want to be our ambassador to the stars. In 2016, I think he'd still be in the running for the job!
He went down across the field and through the strip of woods and came out on the great outthrust of rock that stood atop the cliff that faced the river. (39)Two lovely scenes feature people giving others water to drink - one through "a cup fashioned of a strip of folded birch bark" (44) - as a sign of their character. There's an unvarnished argument about city folk learning from the country, learning enough to save the world, and that's one a 2018 reader might dislike. I'm reminded of Bradbury's love of the midwest. Rural science fiction is a thing.
The assurance would be there, he thought, the assurance that life had a special place in the great scheme of existence, that one, no matter how small, how feeble, how insignificant, still did count for something in the vast sweep of space and time. (81)