Way Station is firmly rooted in its time of publication. While the language and descriptions are still worthwhile, the themes of this book seem dated and naïve. Simak tells the story of Enoch Wallace, a soldier that survived Gettysburg and afterwards was chosen by an alien to transform his parental house in a secret way station for all kinds of different alien travellers. Enoch is to be the keeper of this station, and doesn’t age any more. At first, the story holds tremendous promise. There is a sense of mystery, and Simak’s rural descriptions of the lonely Enoch and his daily occupations really achieve a unique, emotional mood.
As the novel progresses, this mood at times becomes muddled by the obvious messages Simak wants to convey. The fear of a devastating, apocalyptic nuclear war lays as a heavy hand on the story. Progressing intelligence, technology and science are pointed out as culprits, something which has been in fashion for thinkers since the second half of the 20th century. They forgot that the brutal Mongol conquest in the 13th century was able to kill more than 40 million people, as opposed to the 55 million that were killed in World War 2. Yet the Mongols did so in a world with only 1/7th the population of the mid-20th century. They also did so without atomic bombs, tanks and gas chambers. Although war and violence remain potent themes for a book, the way Simak approaches them seems dated.
Simak also ventures into a strange mysticism, possibly also inspired by the sixties vibe. The universe seems to “care” in unexplained way, and an important part of the plot has to do with an ill-conceived “Talisman”, a mysterious device made 10.000 years ago by some alien. This more or less magical device is needed to keep the different societies of the galaxy, and even the galaxy itself, together. How the universe held together before this talisman was constructed is unclear. The fact that, near the end, the ultimate savior of humanity (and the other galactic races) turns out to be a deaf-mute child with unexplained magical powers, shows Simak actually is a hopeless, messianic Romantic.
Add to that a pervading feeling throughout the book, exemplified in the following sentence:
In the old days it would have been – what did you say, gentlemanly and on a plane of principles and ethics.
Simak is not only a Romantic, but a reactionary too…
As the magic above, there’s quite a lot of other stuff that’s underdeveloped. True, it’s a short book – only 189 pages in my edition – , but I feel some decisive editing would have made it stronger. There’s a side plot about the impossible love between Enoch and a kind of AI woman. It should have been cut away, or explored fuller. And Simak, as Asimov more than a decade before him, also dabbles a bit in the possibility of calculating the future with math, and even hints at an ethics calculator. It’s only dabbling & hints, sadly. There are strange artifacts that traveling aliens leave at the way station, and Simak clearly has a vivid, strong imagination, but I wanted to know more.
This book has merit, but not as a novel of ideas. The back cover talks about “pastoral science fiction”. The following quote illustrates this, as well as Simak’s real strenght…
It stood as it had always stood, unchanged, except that in the olden days there had been ruffled curtains at each window. The yard around it had changed with the slow growth of the years , with the clump of lilacs thicker and more rank and tangled with each passing spring, with the elms that his father had planted grown from six-foot whips into mighty trees, with the yellow rose bush at the kitchen corner gone, victim of a long-forgotten winter, with the flower beds vanished and the small herb garden, here beside the gate, overgrown and smothered out by grass.
The old stone fence that had stood on each side of the gate now was little more than a humpbacked mound. The heaving of a hundred frosts, the creep of the vines and grasses, the long years of neglect, had done their work. In another hundred years, he thought, it would be level, with no trace of it left. Down in the field , along the slope where erosion had been at work, there were long stretches where it had entirely disappeared.
All of this had happened and until now he had scarcely noticed it. But now he noticed it and wondered why he did.