Clifford D. Simak, Way Station (Old Earth Books, 2004)

Clifford D. Simak was one of the major voices of the Golden Age of Science Fiction. He was, as well, one of what I (and others) call the "John W. Campbell generation": those writers who moved away from Hugo Gernsback's formula of stories built around science into a more humanistic view. The sense of wonder was still there, the idea of the universe as a place of marvels, filled with possibilities, and the sense of optimism that said we could make life better, but it became colored with the awareness of the moral complications inherent in our ideas of progress.

Way Station was awarded the Hugo for Best Novel in 1963, when the New Wave authors were just beginning to make their presence felt. Some have denigrated the award (it beat out Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle, certainly a departure from the accepted canon), but I think that judgment is unfair: when boundaries are shifting, it's foolish to throw away the map. I think Way Station deserves that status, because it is a worthy example of what the Golden Age was about.

Enoch Wallace fought in the Civil War as a young man, then returned to the family farm outside Millville, Wisconsin, a fairly remote area in those days, where people were, perhaps, not exactly insular, but at least reticent about their business. A century later, more or less, he still lives there in the same farmhouse, appearing to be a man in his early thirties, never going out, although he subscribes to a number of newspapers and scientific journals. He buys blank journal books by the dozen, and does not farm the land except for a small vegetable garden.

And the house, in spite of seeming the same, has changed. It is impervious to any attempt at entry, and no one can see in the windows. If they could, they would see a large empty space with some strange-looking . . . machinery, perhaps, for lack of a better word,and nothing else. The house has become a way station for travelers from the stars, where they can pause and perhaps rest a bit before continuing their journeys. And Enoch is the station keeper.

He is reclusive by necessity as well as by temperament. His only real friends are the postman, Winslowe; Lucy, the deaf-mute daughter of a family of ne'er-do-wells, who seems to have a bit of natural magic to her; and a few friends he has created from his own memories and dreams -- not fantasies, exactly, for they have minds and wills of their own, but they aren't exactly real.

There is a plot -- earth moves toward another, possibly ultimately destructive war, and the galactic civilization is more and more subject to factional competition based on group interests -- but the book is not really about that. It is a reverie, a memoir, sometimes an elegy. Simak has crystallized the concerns of a whole generation of science-fiction writers in a story that is poetic in its outlook if not in its diction.

It's not a perfect book, not by today's standards and not by the standards of the time. It could be tighter (although by the measure of some of the contemporary potboilers taking up too much shelf space in bookstores, it's quite lean and certainly not self-indulgent), and the ending is almost obvious (not quite, but not at all unexpected). And no, it does not evidence anything of the range of style or degree of "literariness" that was to become an exciting part of speculative fiction as writers like Zelazny, Aldiss, Ballard, Brunner, and yes, Vonnegut, began to influence the field, but that's tantamount to faulting Dumas because he wasn't Melville.

It's simply a very good book, a solidly constructed story about the wonders of a universe we barely know, fraught with the unease of realizing we may finish ourselves off before we ever have a chance to understand it, ameliorated by the hope that we may, perhaps, learn better, if we give ourselves the chance.

[Robert M. Tilendis]