Just a Pit Stop in the Galaxy

I recently finished a book called Way Station by Clifford D. Simak, and thought it was good enough to post about. Enoch Wallace is a civil war soldier whose house is transformed into a transfer station for aliens traveling around in space. It’s kind of a like a backwater bus stop no one stays at because there’s nothing to see. He becomes the keeper of the station, and therefore immortal. The story picks up with the government finally noticing the strange behavior of this hermit, hiding away in a remote part of Wisconsin, who never ages and who sends diamonds away every now and then to maintain his funds. You’ve probably never heard of the great diamond mines of Wisconsin. Well, neither has the U.S. Government. Enoch has lived a hundred years or so as the keeper without an incident, but forces beyond his control are bringing things to a head. (Warning: the analysis of the book below contains spoilers).

Enoch’s story is a deceptively simple one. Way Station is a slim volume culminating in one Big Incident. But that incident feels, well, quite incidental in comparison to the ideas Simak is interested in exploring. Way Station is anti-war, but not a screed. The book was published in 1963, and is colored by cultural consciousness of the time. Simak uses Enoch’s position as a former civil war soldier as a frame to explore how violence can be necessary, but also how it, and violence on a grand scale – war – can pollute humanity.

But before I throw out more grand, sweeping observations about the book, let me summarize the plot more completely. Enoch is noticed by government officials, and he knows they’re watching. This, in and of itself, doesn’t really bother him much. If need be, he can hole up in his transformed house station which could survive a nuclear strike. But he’s reluctant to do this. He doesn’t want to lose his connection to humanity. That is a constant theme in the book. Because he has lived beyond the years of a normal man and retained his youth, and because he has interacted with aliens and been exposed to their alternate ethics and morals, he’s not sure he’s truly human any longer.

The process by which aliens transfer from place to place is an interesting one – a variant on Star Trek’s “beaming.” A machine inside the station receives a signal from another station and uses raw materials to reconstitute the alien using the information received. When the alien shoots off to the next planet, it leaves a shell behind, and it is Enoch’s job to maintain the raw materials housed in the station and clean up the temporary body the alien once was. There are some echoes here, to a soul inhabiting the body, in the transfer of these aliens through space. Death and rebirth occur over and over again. And this becomes important later, because the climax of the book contains a spiritual element, and events depicted have the feel of a destiny fulfilled, with the hand of a higher power involved, rather than a cold empty universe. And rebirth to innocence is what Simak ultimately wants us to achieve.

The aliens bring Enoch gifts, and his relationships with the variety of creatures he encounters is one of the best aspects of the book. It’s humorous when he has interact with a slime. The aliens all seem grateful, though some can barely communicate with him, and offer gifts as a show of their gratitude. Enoch is always obliging, because he takes his job very seriously, and wants to make a good impression for all humanity as he interacts with these interstellar travelers. He knows he will likely be the only human they ever interact with. He journals about every interaction as a legacy for mankind. Again, he is split in his loyalty. He feels he is part of the larger, galactic community, but also feels tied to his own kind on Earth.

He still takes a daily walk to get the mail, rifle in hand because that’s how traveled by foot during the 1800s when he came of age, and he has conversations with the local mailman, maintaining a human connection there. He also has a relationship with a deaf mute girl named Lucy, who is the roving, practically wild child of a neighboring family. Lucy is an innocent, and has the powers of a backwoods witch. She can charm away warts and heal an injured butterfly. A seasoned reader will sniff out right away that Lucy, the uncorrupted, is going to have a hand to play in how the book ends.

Rounding out the supporting characters, Enoch was recruited by an alien named Ulysses (actually Enoch gave him that name, because there wasn’t an approximation for his real name the human tongue could pronounce). Ulysses is Enoch’s best friend, and a member of the galactic council that manages the stations throughout the galaxy. Ulysses loves coffee (a fun detail) and has a growing concern that the Earth station will be shuttered. Humans are too dangerous (WAR!) to be embraced by the galactic citizenry and there is a missing device called the Talisman, that facilitates the web of connections throughout the cosmos. Because it is missing, and doesn’t have a keeper, the Talisman’s power is on the wane, and relationships everywhere are beginning to fray.

As I said, Enoch befriends aliens whenever he gets the chance. One of the aliens died in the station a few years before, and Enoch performed a burial that intermingled a Christian service with what he knew about the alien’s culture. In doing so, he had ingratiated himself to aliens, who saw him as honoring the dead properly, but then the curious government officials get involved. They exhume the body and take it to Washington for study. It is this action that convinces the council that humans cannot be a part of the galactic membership, and indeed, the station on Earth needs to be closed. Ulysses bears the bad news to Enoch, who isn’t sure what his next action should be. He wants the people of Earth to not lose this chance, and, to top it all off, the aliens fear the warring humans so much, they want to send us back to the stone age (mentally) so we can evolve in a better way the next time.

I wrote above that Way Station, isn’t an anti-war screed, but typing out the plot really exposes the message this novel is trying to communicate. Let’s just say it never feels heavy-handed. Enoch is too genial and charming a character to rub you the wrong way when you’re reading the book. The message is clear though.

It won’t surprise anyone that Lucy is the long sought after Keeper and that the Talisman shows up in the Earth station. A rat-like creature (naturally) is the culprit who stole the device years before, and it ends up in the station, struggling with Enoch, because, upon arriving in the station, it tries to destroy the equipment there so on other aliens can follow it. When Enoch stops the destruction, the rat takes to the Wisconsin country side where it runs smack dab into Lucy. Enoch, still a sure shot, puts a bullet in the creature’s head as it grapples with the girl. Lucy takes possession of the Talisman and all is right with the galaxy again. The government officials, with Enoch’s urging, have returned the body to its proper grave, and now that an earthling is the Keeper, it’s a foregone conclusion that Earth will be admitted to full galactic membership.

After shooting the rat creature, Enoch tosses his rifle into a nearby river. He accepts that it was necessary to shoot it, and would do it again, but found no joy in it, and symbolically is absolving himself from ever having this role again.

Way Station is short, but isn’t a quick read. Simak is perfectly natural in the way he exposes details of the backstory surrounding Enoch, building the man’s experience from the ground up. But at the same time the lack of plot incident for me meant that the book was easy to drift away from. I wasn’t rifling through it. The climax, with the rat, feels very rushed, without the lead-up you would expect to build the tension. Some potential conflicts are brushed aside. (The government official has no problem bring the body back; Lucy’s family and other townspeople show up for a big showdown with Enoch but they lose their mob frenzy under the glow of the Talisman).

Again, though, this isn’t a book about plot. It is a book of ideas, about what it is to be human when certain essential elements of the human character have evolved. And the book has a crystalline beauty that can’t be denied. Here’s an example of Simak’s prose from the close of the book that typifies this. “He stood on the rim of the cliff and looked out across the river and the dark shadow of the wooded valley. His hands felt strangely empty with the rifle gone, but it seemed that somewhere, back there just a way, he had stepped into another field of time, as if an age or day had dropped away and he had come into a place that was shining and brand new and unsullied by past mistakes.” You can’t help, reading the book, to want to at least be Enoch’s friend, if not mold yourself to be a little more like Enoch. He is a good man, in an essential way, who is willing to sacrifice himself for others. We can’t be as innocent as Lucy, Simak seems to say, but we can at least strive for peace, like Enoch.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *