Way Station – Clifford D Simak (1963)
‘Enoch Wallace survived Gettysburg and lived through the rest of the Civil War to make it home to his parents’ farm in Wisconsin. But his mother was already dead and his father soon joined her in the tiny family cemetery. It was then that Enoch met the being he called Ulysses and the farm became a way station for space-travellers. Now, nearly a hundred years later, the US government is taking an interest in the seemingly immortal Enoch, and the Galactic Council which set up the way station, is threatening to tear itself apart.’
Blurb from the 2000 Gollancz SF Collectors Edition
Enoch Wallace, the only survivor of the massacre of his regiment during the American Civil War, returns home to his farm in Wisconsin and a hard but maybe too-idyllic existence since Simak is nothing if nostalgic for a perfect America which has been lost. In this – an undoubted classic of the genre – he once again paints a portrait of a backwoods America of ignorant but basically decent countryfolk, people who protect their neighbours’ privacy as they jealously protect their own, even if the neighbour is rumoured to be well over a hundred years old and looks no older than thirty.
Shortly after the death of his parents when he returns from the war, Enoch is approached by a mysterious stranger and is recruited to convert his farmhouse into a way-station. The exterior looks exactly the same as it always did, but it is now protected by a force-field which only Enoch can open. Inside, some force protects Enoch from getting older which means that a hundred years on, Enoch has only aged a fraction of the years that have passed.
The interior houses complex equipment for the reception and forwarding-on by matter-transmission of alien travellers, the details of which Enoch meticulously transcribes in large record books.
Now however, Enoch is being watched by government agents, suspicious not only of his background and true age, but of an alien body which they have retrieved from his family burial plot.
Added to that, the world seems headed toward the brink of Nuclear War and even the peaceful Galactic Society of which only Enoch knows the existence is in turmoil, its factions warring over further expansion into the spiral arm beyond Earth and also suffering from the loss of the novel’s MaGuffin, an ancient artifact called The Talisman which can put its bearer into contact with the spiritual force of the Universe, i.e. God.
Enoch – one of Simak’s trademark loners – has few friends. One is the mailman whom he walks out to meet each day, a man who is also a talented woodcarver, not knowing the true origin of the pieces of alien wood (from which he carves exquisite pieces) which Enoch is occasionally given as gifts by the visitors who pass through.
Another is Lucy, a deaf mute daughter of his neighbour Hank. She has a natural affinity for Nature and appears to exhibit occasional extraordinary powers, as when Enoch witnesses her heal a butterfly’s wing.
Written against the backdrop of the recent Cuban Missile Crisis, The Cold War, the Vietnam War and the growing anti-war movement, Simak’s novel contains some obvious messages regarding the futility of war, despite some rather – perhaps misplaced – nostalgic support of the American Civil War which Enoch, and perhaps Simak himself, felt was a just and honourable war, fought within strict parameters of code.
The novel succeeds in its juxtaposition of the pastoral and the futuristic, haystacks, pitchforks and fabulous galactic technology sitting side by side which, in the hands of Simak, somehow works due mainly to his deep love for the open spaces of the US.
The plot is simplistic and ultimately flawed since the denouement relies too much on an unexpected criminal turning up at the way station at the last minute with the long-lost Talisman. It would have made more sense had the Talisman been hidden there for the last hundred years which would give the criminal a reason for going there. Despite this minor quibble however, this is one of the most romantic and evocative novels of the Twentieth century and possibly Simak’s finest single work.