Thursday, May 17, 2012

Review: Way Station by Clifford D. Simak

Way Station by Clifford D. Simak

Published: Galaxy Science Fiction, 1963

Awards Won: Hugo Award

The Book:

“After the Civil War, the soldier Enoch Wallace returned to his family farm and rural hometown.  After his parents’ death, he maintained a solitary lifestyle in that home, enduring for over a century with no apparent physical change.  He lives peaceably, causing no trouble and existing only as a mild curiosity to his fellow townsfolk.

The secret of his eternal youth is technology, not magic.  The truth is, Enoch has been recruited by an alien he named ‘Ulysses’ to run Earth’s first galactic way station.  Unable to reveal his secrets to the world at large, he carefully records all the knowledge and wisdom he can gain from the many aliens with which he is able to converse. Now, however, people are starting to notice his unusual longevity, and it seems that he may not be able to keep the secrets of his strange life from being finally revealed.” ~Allie

I first encountered Clifford D. Simak in middle school, through a tattered copy of City that I miraculously discovered a tiny classroom library.  I hadn’t read any of his work since then, but WWend’s Grand Master’s Reading Challenge gave me the necessary push to finally read his Hugo winning novel! 

My Thoughts:

Simak’s writing style in Way Station is very simple and clear, and it reminds me a bit of Asimov’s style.  I think the simplicity of the writing might annoy some readers, but I felt like it fit well with the tone of the novel.  It is a slow-paced novel featuring a lonely near-immortal in a rural area. Despite the comings and goings of aliens, Enoch was a fairly unsophisticated man who had been leading an uncomplicated, if unusual, life.  I found the character of Enoch very refreshing. He spent a lot of time carefully thinking through questions of morality and loyalty, as he slowly made peace with his own life.  There were not all that many other developed characters in the novel, but it was very easy to empathize with Enoch’s thoughtful loneliness.

Most of the other characters, such as the coffee-drinking alien Ulysses, the well-meaning government agent, and the negative-stereotype-redneck Fisher family, were not deeply characterized beyond their initial impressions.  The most developed secondary character, Lucy Fisher, seemed to be a little potentially problematic. Lucy is a young deaf girl that cannot speak, who is portrayed as having a kind of spiritual and magical purity and goodness born of her detachment from the modern world.  Besides being a bit unlikely, Lucy’s portrayal did not bother me too much, but I imagine that it could be insurmountably irritating to people who have more personal experience with hearing disabilities.

Simak’s aliens and technology have a much more mystic and magical cast than most science fiction I’ve read.  For instance, instead of having the aliens abolish religion, Enoch learns that all the aliens believe in a spiritual force.  Many of the trinkets Enoch is gifted with, and the technology of the way station itself, are never completely explained.  While some are clearly advanced technology, others appear to actually be mystical in nature.  Since we see everything through Enoch’s point of view, we can only read what he is able to understand.  I thought this was effective in communicating the idea of the massive wealth of knowledge of the universe, only a small fraction of which Enoch can ever truly grasp.  

The story of Way Station moved rather slowly, and tended to go off on digressions and subplots that had only a tenuous connection to the main plot.  Some of these subplots were actually quite interesting in their own right, but they did start to make the book feel a little unfocused.  One in particular, concerning ‘shadow people’ that Enoch created from his own thoughts, seemed almost to be a criticism of traditional pulp characters.  The conclusion of the subplot seemed to state that neither a wish-fulfillment version of oneself, nor a woman created solely to fill one’s romantic needs constitutes a believable person.  Another tangential plot was the imminent threat of nuclear war, which dated the novel a bit.  Many different subplots appeared to be coming together for the ending, but the conclusion ending up to be a disappointing one of the deus ex machina variety.

My Rating: 3.5/5

Way Station is the simply written account of a rural man, Enoch Wallace, who is tasked with running Earth’s only traveling station for aliens from all over the galaxy.  It is a rather slow, contemplative novel, filled with Enoch’s thoughts and observations.  I enjoyed seeing the various aliens and the alien artifacts through Enoch’s viewpoint, and I liked that the reader was almost never presented with a complete explanation for any of them.  I found it interesting that Simak’s galactic empire still had room for mysticism and spirituality. One flaw of the novel was its occasional lack of cohesion, as the story sometimes wandered down side paths that were not particularly relevant to the central story.  Other problems concern the frustratingly simple ending and a problematic portrayal of a young girl with a hearing disability.  Way Station is a novel that shows its age, but I think it is definitely still worth reading.


  1. Allie, you said a lot of things I had wanted to say in my review, but never got around to. I mean, your thoughts mirrored mine pretty exactly.

    Lucy was a little bit of a weak point, but then I kinda figured that compared to some of the horrendous characters and attitudes from other Hugo winners of the time, it was pretty tame. But I can see Lucy being a pretty offensive character to some.

    The thing I hadn't thought of until I read your review was the almost mystical approach to extra-terrestrial beings/culture but you are SO RIGHT! And now I just like them even more!

    Great review as always.

    1. Thanks, Jeremy! It does sound from your review that we liked most of the same things about "Way Station" :). I can agree that a lot of SF of the time period had some pretty problematic characters, and Lucy is certainly not the worst I've read. I really loved how much freedom Simak's approach to the alien cultures/technology gave him to come up with really neat ideas!

  2. Hey Allie, I just posted this review to the WWEnd blog for May where it sites quite nicely next to Jeremy's. I'm just a little behind this month. Thanks for the great review!

    1. Thanks, Dave! May has been a pretty busy month in my world as well :).