Mar 17 2009 10:20am

I think I’ll go for a walk and think about aliens: Clifford Simak’s Way Station

I don’t know how long it is since I read Way Station, maybe thirty years. It was written in 1963 and won the novel Hugo in 1964, the year I was born. It was in the SF collection of Aberdare library when I was a teenager and I read my way through the whole lot in alphabetical order (from Guardians of Time to Creatures of Light and Darkness). I don’t think I’ve read it since.

It’s a strangely pastoral hard SF story.

The CIA investigate a man who is more than a hundred years old, but looks thirty. They can’t get into his house but there’s an alien buried behind it. After this beginning the book closes in on Enoch, the contemplative keeper of the alien way station and his quiet unchanging life. It’s a character study of a man who has for years been an observer. He observes Earth, going for a brief walk each day and reading papers and magazines to keep him connected to his planet. He observes the aliens who pass through his station—the aliens teleport about the galaxy but need to stop regularly and re-collect themselves lest they become scattered by their passage. He collects the toys and gifts they leave him, often without comprehending them. He makes notes in his journal about the aliens he meets and what he can glean about galactic society.

He goes for walks through the beautiful Wisconsin countryside. He thinks about weird aliens he has met and chatted with and made friends with or never seen again. He frets vaguely about the ongoing Cold War and humanity’s ability to blow themselves up. He contemplates a truly chilling alien option for saving the world by making everyone stupid for a few generations—a catastrophic Babel event that would be better than destroying humanity and the planet. He sends aliens on to the next stage of their incomprehensible journeys, he plays with creating artificial intelligences, he tries to figure out alien mathematical systems, he goes for a walk.

For years I’ve tried to understand and to conform to all 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’m glad of it, for it had given me a chance to go beyond the narrowness of Earth.

There is in fact a plot, but I had completely forgotten it and wasn’t all that impressed to rediscover it. What I remembered about the book was Enoch tending the alien visitors and only aging while he was outside the station. That character study is what’s interesting and memorable about this book, and on this re-read it’s still what I liked about it. Re-reading it now I was surprised. It seems like a really unrepresentative science fiction book and I’m amazed people liked it enough for it to win a Hugo, but I also really enjoyed it. I picked it up now because ELeatherwood compared Piper to Simak in the Fuzzy thread, and it seemed like a long long time since I’d read any Simak other than City, which is the only one I own. I’m glad I read it, but I’m also a little bemused. Nothing happened! But there were aliens! So I guess that’s OK then. Also it was lyrical and lovely, and there’s a the high density of ideas I associate with classic SF. Maybe I’ll read it again in another thirty years and see what I think of it then.

1. clovis
'Way Station' has a plot? I'd forgotten that totally as well. Thanks for this piece on good old Clifford Simak. As an avid and rabid SF reader in the late '70s he was one of my favourites, not only 'Way Station' but also 'Time and the Stars', 'Cemetary World' and 'Shakespeare's Planet'. Oddly enough I couldn't tell you the plot of any of them but have a vivid memory of an atmosphere and characterisation and was askew from the majority of SF at the time.
Winchell Chung
2. Nyrath
It’s a strangely pastoral hard SF story.

Actually, the majority of Simak stories I've read can be described as "pastoral hard SF." Examples include "City" and "The Big Front Yard."

If you really want a mood piece from Simak, try to find a copy of "All the Traps of Earth."

3. SF_Fangirl
I read it recently (within the last 5 years) and was very underwhelmed. There's no plot! Another disappointing Hugo winner. I've pretty much given up my previous goal of reading all the Hugo and Nebula award winner even when the plot symnopisis makes it sound good it often isn't.

Also as a child and teen of the 80s, I just can't really internalize the belief that the cold war was going to end in nuclear war. I've found in stories written during the cold war when that assumption is critical to the plot the authors feel no need to develop it. I had something of the same problem in Watchmen. I really loved the story, but never felt nuclear war was looming in the background.
Jo Walton
4. bluejo
SF_Fangirl: You sound like an alien complaining that all our SF takes it for granted that we're in an oxygen-nitrogen atmosphere. I think the Cold War is one of those things where you had to be there. I'm not that much older than you, but I think there's a sharp psychological divide between people who were adult before the Berlin Wall came down and those who weren't. I can remember reading Sterling's "We See Things Differently" and thinking that it was set in a different future, not the future I'd always believed we were heading for where the Cold War would still be going on in space in hundreds of years time or the whole planet would be destroyed at any moment.

Or to put it another way, I don't blame Simak one bit for assuming his readers would be able to insert that for themselves... but I can also see why you might have a problem. This is only going to be more of a problem as time goes on, too.
Barbara Gordon
5. bmlg
I've been reading Simak recently. Goblin Reservation I read as a child, and it's still close to me (the scene where the protagonist goes to sit with the last banshee, who is dying, because no one should die alone).
What strikes me is how much outright oddness was going on unremarked in the genre. Lafferty is acknowledged as strange, but it wasn't just him. It's a bit like Heironymus Bosch being called a crazy visionary, but if you look thoroughly at Brueghel, there's just as much surreality going on in the background (some of which would make perfect sense if we knew more about the cultural setting).
6. SF_Fangirl
bluejo @4 ... Your Hugo Nominees reviews led me to this post which led me back to a comment I made over a year ago. Odd.

I'll followup with I'm not necessarily complaining about that death by nuclear war assumption in older novels (they wrote for their time with no plan to be a classic), but (for me and for people younger than me) it dates a novel making it less accessible.

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