I believe Clifford D. Simak's 'Way Station', originally published under the title of 'Here Gather the Stars' in a couple of issues of 'Galaxy' in 1963, was the first winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel that I ever read. It's one of the first science fiction books I ever read, way back in 1981, when I wasn't even a teenager yet.
I've mentioned before how I found science fiction. I was blown away by a BBC mini-series adaptation of 'The Day of the Triffids' and, talking with my mum about it, discovered that it was based on a book that she had on her shelves along with a whole slew of others from the same genre. Eager to dive in, she gave me the Heinlein juveniles, the Lije Baley books by Asimov and this, the only Simak I think I've read thus far for no better reason than I proceeded alphabetically with Adams, Aldiss and Asimov, Blish, Bradbury and Burroughs.
What I don't remember is when I last read 'Way Station'. I've certainly gone back to it multiple times after large gaps, but it's been a while. It's been long enough that it played differently to me this time through. Certainly it seems like a simple story and it can be read simply, but there's a lot going on that benefits from digging deeper.
Enoch Wallace is a conundrum and people are starting to notice. He lives in rural Wisconsin, in an area where people mind their own business, but, even there, people are starting to talk and others are starting to pay attention. You see, while he might appear to be a thirty-year-old man, living on a farm his family worked before him, he's maybe four times that age, a survivor of Gettysburg, a subscriber to Nature for over eighty years.
What's more, he seems to be doing quite well even though he doesn't farm his land, just sends a pack of gems to New York every five or ten years to keep him in what little funds he needs to sustain himself. He subscribes to a lot of journals and buys a lot of notebooks. No wonder the US government wants to know what's going on, especially as the farm has aged as well as Wallace himself.
Whatever their guesses are, they're wrong. What Wallace does is no mystery to us because most editions of the book detail it on their dust jackets and back cover blurbs. It's right there in the title of the book: he runs a way station. Sure, the people who come through his way station are not from our planet, travelling from somewhere way out there to somewhere out there even further. They're not coming to Earth per se; it's merely a rural stop on an extra-terrestrial railroad where they never leave the station.
What enthralled me when I was ten or eleven years old was this whole setup. Wallace knows what everyone else on the planet doesn't: that there really is life out there in the universe. He also knows that it exists in many forms, with many cultures and languages and customs. He gets to experience it all as a host, chatting with visitors as they pause for a moment in his station, learning about them; a part of something much bigger than his own world.
I adored that concept. I fell immediately in love with Wallace's situation, his small part in a big picture. I wanted to live in a house that couldn't age and didn't need maintenance, in which I had a job that nobody else had and through which an endless stream of wonders marched, often with exotic, sometimes inexplicable gifts in hand, and even more often with conversation and a glimpse into the infinite. Never mind how isolated Wallace must have been from his own race, he manned a door into the universe.
There are a number of subplots unfolding throughout the novel that initially seem unrelated but which all come together at the end. As a kid, I wasn't a fan of how that happened. Maybe it seemed like a cheap way to give the story an end when it should have carried on forever. Maybe it felt convenient in a story otherwise without need for conveniences. Maybe I just wasn't ready for what it meant. This time, as a granddad closing in on half a century, I was more open to what it means and what it adds to this novel. It certainly did not feel cheap at all this time through.
There's a subplot about the government watching Wallace, but that doesn't go the way it would today. The watcher is a good man and, when he accidentally causes an incident far more important than he can grasp, he takes care of it as best he can. There's another about a deaf mute girl living one farm over, who has no place in the world and is, in her way, as isolated as Wallace is from the human race. She finds her place at the end. And, in a novel full of hope and wonder, there's a pessimistic side in which Wallace is sure, using alien mathematics, that the human race is about to destroy itself. This was 1963, after all. The Cuban Missile Crisis was only a year prior and the Cold War was in full swing.
As a science fiction novel, it's mostly about ideas and they're surprisingly grounded in how we live on our planet. There's some xenobiology but this is far from an Alan Dean Foster novel. There's some alien culture and learning but it's here because of how it can be applied to our world. Even the tech, of which surprisingly little is explained, has relevance, right down to the shooting range that he had his alien employers build inside his farm; it's a sort of holodeck with endless scenarios, a quarter of a century before Star Trek: The Next Generation.
If my understanding of the book changes every time I read it, the one major constant is its tone. It's a gentle novel. For all the chaos that erupts at points and the ramifications of that chaos, it's a peaceful one, a cosy one and a simple one. Even when it's pessimistic, it feels like hope. Even when it's sad, as it is intensely with the friends Wallace conjures up with alien thaumaturgy, not understanding what he's really doing, I sympathise. Even as he sits alone on the other side of a sort of boundary from the rest of his species, I never doubt that he's on the right side of it. There's sadness too in realising that the rest of the world can never know that.
Even though it's been a long while, I knew that I'd enjoy 'Way Station' one more time. What surprised me was how much deeper I enjoyed it this time and how intensely it made me feel. I realise now how rooted in its time it was, speaking to an era of uncertainty and potential doom with gentleness, peace and understanding. However, I'm reading it now in 2019, thirty years after a wall fell and ushered in a whole new era. The doomsday clock has moved back and forth ever since but 'Way Station' is as timely as ever.
And that's why this tenth winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel is surely the best yet. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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