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.


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