Settling on the porch for a spell

Nothing like sharing a cup of the coffee with a friend ...

Nothing like sharing a cup of the coffee with a friend …

With the harbingers of Spring all around, the Beamers got cozy at our local Panera’s to discuss a similar cozy story, that of Civil War veteran Enoch Wallace, commissioned by Galactic Central to run a teleport station for traveling extraterrestrials in the backwoods of Wisconsin, 1963.  Which is more unbelievable?  A galaxy-spanning saga that occupies a single rural house, or a complete galaxy-spanning sf novel that occupies a single, 200-page volume?  The Beamers settled down for a spell to figure it out.

Marching off to Peace

Way Station (1963), the story of Enoch Wallace’s recruitment and continuing employment as the Earth station manager, was Clifford Simak’s 10th sf novel, and his second Hugo-winning piece of fiction (after 1958’s novelette, “The Big Front Yard”).  Simak, a newspaper reporter, had a fiction career starting in 1931 and continuing to 1981, when he won his final Hugo and Nebula for his story “Grotto of the Dancing Deer”.  While never a superstar of speculative fiction, Simak was one of the steady contributors to John W. Campbell’s Astounding magazine during the sf Golden Age and through the 1950s and 1960s.  His writing is often centered on rural protagonists who, in small and down-to-earth ways, get involved with the big issues of sf, like immortality and teleportation and the morality of artificial intelligence.

In Way Station, we follow Enoch Wallace, a veteran of the Civil War, whose basic decency and common sense recommend him to Ulysses, an alien recruiter, to become the Earth representative and station manager for an interstellar teleportation system.  Simak plays on Enoch’s memories of the War and his memories of combat, along with his personal attachment to his childhood home, now the repository of alien technology and gifts from the star travelers who befriend him.  Beamers were struck by how Simak could render a fairly complete picture of a galactic civilization, including its different cultures, the factions that unite and separate them, and its history, all in a (relatively) short work.  The “minimalism” of Simak, typical of 1950s sf, continues to impress us.

Back to the Future?

Even as some of the work has a dated feeling.  Kevin, absent but contributing via e-mail, kicked off our talk by complaining at the obsolescence of some of the sf conventions that Simak invokes, such as the alien statistical “psychohistory” Enoch uses to predict a coming World War (atomic bombs included), or the hand-wavy introduction and dismissal of various alien devices.  The other Beamers did demur, as the “Mizar statistics” were not played as being as definitive as Hari Seldon’s super-science, nor as integral to the plot, as Donna pointed out.  And Jon noted, in a comment that could support Kevin’s point, that the period of the early 1960s, with events like the Cuban Missile Crisis, were prime-time for fears of an apocalyptic atomic showdown, so Simak including same would not be unexpected.

A much harder hand-wave to ignore, though, was the fast introduction of Enoch’s “shadow friends”, Mary and David, holographic(?) beings who suddenly show up to have a final conversation with Enoch before disappearing from the rest of the book (well, David stays disappeared, anyway).  I felt that I was reading a defective copy, one with a few chapters missing, when Mary and David made their sudden “Hello, we must be going” debuts.  Jon likened it to passing something at speed on the highway, stopping and backing up to see just what got passed by.  Kathy, who otherwise adored the book, found it hard to credit Mary and David with the kind of autonomy that apparently triggers the personal crisis that forces Enoch to relinquish his attachment to them.  All in all, Simak is making a very deep and emotional dilemma for Enoch, who, as a Union soldier, would be particularly sensitive to issues of freedom and slavery.  But we readers were still a bit unsettled by the sense of coming in on the final scene of a lifetime conversation, hearing and recognizing only the bittersweet farewells, if not the actual reasons for them.

The Past Through Tomorrow

Still, it is hard to fault a book that tosses in other unexpected but delightful details such as the modified basement to Enoch’s home, the one-time root cellar that now is the warehouse out of Area 51, crammed with alien goodies so numerous that, as Liz noted, even Enoch has forgotten what they do or whom they are from.  I liked how Simak had anticipated the wonders of Star Trek, offering not only teleporters, but also the holodeck, complete with a full simulation, life-sized target range, a gift that bemused Enoch, who only expected a little alley with paper targets in which to practice his marksmanship.  And in many ways, the benefits and the complications of those alien gifts demonstrate how Simak clearly presents his characters and their circumstances in a “warts and all” manner, full of moral ambiguity.

Take that target range.  By practicing, Enoch is sharp enough with his rifle, an important element of his daily routine, that his sharp shooting at the climax does come across as believable.  At the same time, he is also conflicted enough with the thought of taking a life, even of a villain (a literal “dirty rat” of an extraterrestrial), and with the thought of keeping and bearing a weapon, that he ends up tossing his keepsake gun into the river at the end of the novel.  Fran was impressed that Enoch struggled with the concept of using violence to solve a problem, something that current action “heroes” never seem to even notice, and that the resolution partook, as Kathy mentioned, of beating swords into ploughshares.  Simak, a contemporary of Isaac Asimov, also advocated against violence as a solution, but he could still show how hard it is to simply get past it.

Mighty Pretty Country ‘Round Here

Even the rural life that the novel celebrates is something seen with attention to its pluses and minuses.  The closeness of community and family can be both a source of comfort and a source of pain, with Enoch forced to return Lucy, an abused girl, back to her ne’er-do-well father, knowing that otherwise he will be blamed.Enoch lives undisturbed, for the most part, but becomes the target of a mob that quickly responds to fears of his “outsider” status, even when they are fanned by that same ne’er-do-well.  The loneliness of immortality and how long time can make the most familiar places and items seem strange gives Simak’s book some of the wistful nostalgia and gentle tragedy that leaks through in the best episodes of Doctor Who.  Fran likened it to the estrangement that Olaf Stapledon used in his works, particularly Sirius, the novel about a dog with enhanced human-level intelligence who is neither quite canine nor human.

But dichotomy is, in many ways, the essential idea of the book.  Alan quizzed Jon as to the theme he saw in the work, and Jon felt it lay with Enoch as a person of divided loyalties, torn between competing goods, the good of Earth, which would benefit from the knowledge of aliens that Enoch had collected after a century of service, and the good of Galaxy Central, which relied on his keeping the secret of that service to continue the teleportation system undisturbed by an Earth perhaps not yet ready to assume the responsibilities of galactic citizenship.  Alan added that Enoch himself was a good analogy for Earth, a planet divided by impulses toward universal citizenship and toward worldwide destruction.  One solution offered by Ulysses for Enoch to consider would be to “dumb down” humans to the point where we could not blow ourselves to kingdom come, which I thought also neatly demonstrated Simak’s use of dichotomy, with his “simple” pastoral setting harboring the most space operatic motifs.

Short, Sharp Simak

If the novel disappoints, it does so in ways that may relate to its brevity.  The villain, like the “shadow friends”, is introduced with almost no preparation, along with the Talisman, a mystical device that allows a revelatory communication with the universal “spirit” force.  Several of us found it a mite too convenient for the novel to climax around the improbable appearance of the Galaxy’s Most Wanted, toting the Macguffin.  Jon and I argued that the Talisman should have been one of the devices earlier presented, especially the seemingly purpose-free toy that Lucy, our resident magical deaf-mute, was able to trigger.  Then, the now-activated Talisman could signal its presence, drawing in the villain.  But, alas, we are too genre-savvy to enjoy a simple “machina ex deum”.  Even the more carefully handled issue of the disturbed alien gravesite that initiates the novel’s resolution, had some of us, like Alan, puzzled as to how fast it could be restored.  Would our government really surrender alien remains in under 24 hours?  Even if they could?

Nevertheless, we did enjoy our time in the woods of Wisconsin, watching while the Sun sets behind the Iowa hills westward.  Kathy resolved to read all the rest of Simak’s works, and I offered numerous recommendations, particularly for his first award winner, City (1953), and his shorter works like “The Big Front Yard.”  Perhaps we will wrestle with another of his gentle, decent sf pieces at some future meeting.  It would be an encounter that we would certainly welcome, like Enoch does when the “pancake” blob aliens from Thuban VI drop in for a short soak and some gossipy “clicks”.


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