Way Station by Clifford D. Simak (1904 – 1988) is the third novel by the author that I have read. It was published in 1963 and won the 1964 Hugo Award for best novel. Off the bat, I have to say that this is the most polished of the three novels by Simak that I have read. Nevertheless, I admit that this was not an easy read for me to get through. The setting and the tone really caused the big slowdown with my reading of this novel.
In my comments on my previous Simak reads (Cosmic Engineers and They Walked Like Men), I take the stance that Simak has great ideas for novels, but his plotlines seem to meander around, get lost, or flop apart. His actual writing seems perfectly functional – I would not call it anything better than solid writing. In Way Station, Simak writes a completed, polished work that – based on its themes – was obviously an easy pick for the Hugo Awards. [In 1964, other nominations included Andre Norton’s Witch World and Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle.]
I say “easy pick” because this novel includes a couple of elements that lend to its selection. For one thing, it is a first contact novel. It is 1963 – a time when all of the golden age science fiction stylists have to reckon with the real life developments in the fields of spaceflight and cosmological exploration. This novel may be one of the better first contact novels I have read. A second element to resonate with the readers in 1963/1964 is that the story is told while there is a worldwide threat of war hovering just beyond the proximate setting. The 1960s, of course, are raw with Vietnam War scenarios and this novel does allow human warring to have an influence on the story. In regard to both spaceflight and warfare, the novel takes a hopeful position. I do not say optimistic. Simak did not write of a humanity destined to ruin and destruction, but one that wrestled with its own warring tendencies.
The novel was tough for me to get through because the actual setting is a rural/rustic community. Millville, Wisconsin, to be precise. This is the setting for a couple of Simak’s novels – probably because it is also his birthplace. Simak has a definite familiarity with the location. The first hundred pages or so have a lot of meandering descriptions and sunsets and trees…. and………. I am not good with rustic/rural things. I think I’ve only been to Wisconsin once. That was enough. The woodsy/farming setting is like a sleeping potion on me. I can understand many people loving this scene and finding it wholesome and relaxing and I do not begrudge them their rural sentiments.
However, due to this emphasis on the setting, the pacing seems really off. I really think the first chunk of the book could be edited and reduced. The big “event” in the novel does not happen until page 129 (chapter nineteen) and from then on, events move faster. (Still not New York pace….) A lot of threads get tied together and it all works out neatly in the end. Simak is not a cynical, snide bastard whatsoever. It says on his Wikipedia page that he was “well liked” and that much is obvious just from reading his novels. This is not a bitter, snarling chap; Simak likes the stories to end well. Anyway, the pacing feels off-kilter.
As mentioned above, there is a thread in the story that the Earth is on the cusp of worldwide war. The reader is led to believe it is not quite at the active war stage, but the war that is coming looms large and destructive – like a boosted WWII+ situation. This, of course, is juxtaposed with the sluggish, stolid Millville existence. This atmosphere carries a weight of melancholy to it. And the main character Enoch Wallace is a character full of melancholy. In all actuality, the novel is a melancholy-weighted thing that definitely shows a move away from any form of space opera/action-thriller. As a first contact novel, Simak writes thoughtful, advanced aliens that are not infallible. The aliens are also not goofy or ridiculous. Simak lets his main character wrestle with the alienation [sic] of Wallace from his own people/species and his inclusion in the oneness of the Galactic Central peoples.
This is a good novel – it has some good concepts in it. The ideas are thoughtful and relevant. There is a hefty dose of “reflection” and “introspection” available, too. Wallace’s decisions and his woes are understandable and the reader should empathize. The writing is solid from page one to two hundred thirty-six. However, the melancholy added to the rustic setting was too much for me. At some points, I just did not want to read any more. There are some predictable events, but as a whole this is a good novel. A galactic waystation on the Earth is not a unique idea, but Simak does a very good job with the concept.