“And there she sat, with the wild red and gold of the butterfly poised upon her finger, with the sense of alertness and expectancy and, perhaps, accomplishment shining on her face. She was alive, thought Enoch, as no other thing he knew had ever been alive. The butterfly spread its wings and floated off her finger and went fluttering, unconcerned, unfrightened, up across the wild grass and the goldenrod of the field.”
“They would say he was a madman; that he had run them off at gunpoint. They might even say that he had kidnapped Lucy and was holding her against her will. They would stop at nothing to make him all the trouble that they could. He had no illusions about what they might do, for he knew the breed, vindictive in their smallness–little vicious insects of the human race.”
“He sensed the crashing down of not only his own personal world, but all the hopes of Earth. With the station gone, Earth once more would be left in the backwaters of the galaxy, with no hope of help, no chance of recognition, no realization of what lay waiting in the galaxy. Standing alone and naked, the human race would go on in its same old path, fumbling its uncertain way toward a blind, mad future.”
“It was something that was past all description–a mother’s love, a father’s pride, the adoration of a sweetheart, the closeness of a comrade, it was all of these and more. It made the farthest distance near and turned the complex simple and it swept away all fear and sorrow, for all of there being a certain feeling of deep sorrow in it, as if one might feel that never in his lifetime would he know an instant like this, and that in another instant he would lose it and never would be able to hunt it out again. But that was not the way it was, for this ascendant instant kept going on and on.”
Four paragraphs to capture the beauty, the conflict, the despair and the peace contained in only 210 pages.Set in 1960, published in 1963, Way Station represents its time perfectly. Simak was in love with the early ideas of science fiction: space travel; the miraculous devices; the potential of humanity; intergalactic language; the aliens of unusual being; the idea of intergalactic federation. He also saw the flip side: small-minded violence, suspicion, spying, power plays, nuclear war. His lead character is a man named Enoch Wallace, born in 1840 on a small Wisconsin farm. After fighting in the Civil War under Ulysses Grant, Enoch returns to the farm. Before long, he is alone in the house he grew up in, but his solitude does not last. A very unusual visitor comes one night with a proposal for him.
The language, while rather clear and simple, fittingly captures the the simple and elemental beauty of the rural Wisconsin landscape, and the ongoing wonder Wallace has for alien peoples and cultures. Simak did a marvelous job of developing the feel of a 120 year-old-man immersed in his head, both memories and his self-taught explorations. The time span was impressive and the historical snapshots integrated smoothly.The narrative uses straightforward language to explore philosophical questions most of us have had, the moments we find hope for humanity, and those moments we despair. While that might sound like a slow read, parallel with these musings are Wallace’s small-scale drama with a neighbor girl and her thoughtless family, and a large-scale drama with being spied upon by the CIA. They give focus to his musings and structure the conflict.
The first time through, I struggled a little with (spoiler) the shadow-people. I was not sure how they fit in, except to perhaps show fallibility and isolation of Enoch. The second read, I’m wondering if they represent even more intimately the internal struggles of the philosophical issues Wallace is grappling with, as well as his social isolation.
This is a slow, evocative book that fully deserves to win the Hugo again. It isn’t sexy according to modern tastes of action, multi-perspective narrative or violence. But that is exactly why I recommend it: to have a glimpse of the sci-fi age that struggled with the philosophical underpinnings of the glories of science and exploration, that made room for the big question–what it means to be human. It truly is a brilliant book to pose these questions as it does, with so many contrasts that lend meaning and perspective. Rural Wisconsin, outer space. A young deaf-mute woman and a man who communicates with aliens. A Civil-War era human immersing himself in learning and concepts that would stun modern physics and mathematicians. The lady-slipper plants hidden along a trail, and an alien-built house concealing an intergalactic way station.
Really a lovely book. Five bright stars on a moonless night. Library-worthy.