Book 33 on my list, Way Station, is the story of Enoch Wallace, a late 19th century man who gets chosen to become the keeper of Earth’s way station for travelling aliens. Written in 1963 by Clifford D. Simak, and the winner of the 1964 Hugo Award for Best Novel, this compelling sci-fi contemplates what it means to be human, as both part of the human race and necessarily separated from it. It also touches on themes of religion, social cohesion, brotherhood, and how to unite as a people. I’m almost certain Simak was also influenced by the Cold War at the time, as the main looming catastrophe for Earth in Way Station is an impending nuclear war.
So let’s get right to it.
Plot & Narration
Way Station follows Enoch Wallace, a veteran of the American Civil War (1861-1865) as he goes about life as the keeper of Earth’s way station for travelling aliens. Think of this station as a rest stop for aliens travelling to other parts of the galaxy, but the station also contains the apparatus that allows them to travel. Similar to the transporter in Star Trek, the aliens are transported from one way station to the next until they reach their final destination.
After the war, an alien that he names Ulysses visits Enoch to tell him he’s been chosen as the keeper of the station. Two things are interesting about this: first, that Enoch’s house is converted into the station and no outside person can enter the station without speaking the password. The house is also fortified with alien technology so that it cannot be destroyed; the second thing is that Enoch doesn’t age inside the house. He only ages when he goes outside. This has effectively given Enoch an unnaturally long life (he’s 124 at the time of the story), a fact which makes its way even to the US government.
Being keeper of the way station is also a bit of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, Enoch learns so much about the galaxy, about other aliens, and about science and technology. On the other hand, he can’t tell anyone on Earth about the way station, so he’s doomed to an isolated, lonely existence. More on this below.
After a hundred years of keeping the station, things come to a head when Enoch brings a deaf mute girl into the station to protect her from her abusive father, and an alien dies while in the station. These two events upend Enoch’s quiet, contemplative life, forcing him to act to keep Earth as part of the galactic coalition while also trying to prevent nuclear war.
I don’t want to say much more and ruin it for you, but suffice it to say by the end Enoch is ready to move on from this chapter of his life.
As mentioned above, Way Station explores some really interesting themes, which is one of the reasons I love science fiction so much.
Humanity & Isolation
The main theme I would say is that of humanity, isolation, and what it means to be human. This is the inner, contemplative aspect of Way Station, the B story to the main plot’s A story, if you will. Throughout the novel, Enoch grapples with the idea of what it means to be human, since he’s spent so much time straddling two worlds, the alien and the human. One foot in each but never wholly one or the other. He doesn’t have any friends aside from his mailman, since he keeps to himself mostly so as not to let on about the existence of aliens and the way station. So he effectively removes himself from regular human life, but he’s also not entirely an alien either, even though he spends most of his time with aliens and learning about them.
This dichotomy is revisited many times in the novel.
“He was still human. Funny, he thought, that he should stay human, that in a century of association with these beings from the many stars he should have, through it all, remained a man of Earth. For in many ways, his ties with Earth were cut.”
“He wondered how important it might be that he remain, intellectually and emotionally, a citizen of Earth and a member of the human race.”
“But it was not in himself, he knew, to turn his back on Earth. It was a place he loved too well…A man, he told himself, must belong to something, must have some loyalty and some identity. The galaxy was too big a place for any being to stand naked and alone.”
To combat his loneliness, Enoch even creates two holographic (I think?) people to keep him company every once in a while, but they become too human and so it becomes painful for Enoch to call them forth since he doesn’t want to torture them with the knowledge that they are not quite human. (Think Data’s longing to be a real person in Stark Trek: TNG.) These two characters are, not foils, that’s the wrong word I think, but rather mirror characters. They represent, I think, that same straddling of humanity that Enoch grapples with; being both human but also not human enough. Through their struggle we learn more about Enoch’s struggle as well.
“They hated him and resented him and he did not blame them…He had given them everything that a human being had with the one exception of that most important thing of all-the ability to exist within the human world.”
“He had thought of them as shadow people…But that label had been wrong, for they were not shadowy or ghostlike. To the eyes they were solid and substantial, as real as any people. It was only when you tried to touch them that they were not real-for when you tried to touch them, there was nothing there.”
Enoch also can no longer exist in the human world. To the eye he is solid and substantial, but you can never touch him or have complete access to him since he carries this great secret.
Religion, Spirituality & Social Cohesion
There is also a religious theme threaded throughout the book, which comes into play more in the second half as a major plot point. The idea is that there is a spiritual force, an actual force that the aliens of the galaxy can tap into via a physical object. And the disappearance of this object has caused the galaxy to fall apart, since it is through this object that all aliens can feel/recognize that they are one.
I can’t seem to find out whether or not Simak himself was a religious man, and/or how much that influenced this aspect of the novel, but I think it’s an interesting addition. It’s quite a lovely idea and it’s something we strive for every day, whether we know it or not. We’re always looking for that ineffable something that will make us feel like we’re part of something bigger, that we’re all united and one. It’s why people tend towards groups and social bonds. We evolved as social creatures to live in groups and we are particularly attuned to that feeling of unity that makes our hearts swell with love and pride.
This theme feeds into the idea of social cohesion in the novel.
“‘There may come a day,’ Ulysses said, ‘when it won’t be like that. I can look ahead and see, in some thousands of years, the knitting of the galaxy together into one great culture, one huge area of understanding. The local and the racial variations will still exist, of course, and that is as it should be, but overriding all of these will be a tolerance that will make for what one might be tempted to call a brotherhood.'”
This, of course, has parallels to real life, and I’m certain that’s what Simak was getting at here. Perhaps because of the realities of the first and second World Wars, as well as the Cold War, he envisioned a time when Earth would be done with all that and could finally live in harmony. To him, it might have seemed like the wars were never ending, there was always some conflict (as is indeed the case today). At a high level, it’s exhausting.
I quite enjoyed reading Way Station and thought the writing itself was really good. It’s a departure from earlier stories, such as Heinlein, that have a bit of a drier tone.
My main criticism of Way Station is that it’s a teensy bit slow and structured heavily so that most of the plot happens in the second half of the novel. However, in this particular case I didn’t mind because learning about Enoch and the way station and his internal character arc was compelling. I’m finding that most older sic-fi novels don’t follow the typical story structure that we have today in most TV, movies, and books. That makes perfect sense of course and is a bias I try to recognize and call out when I’m reading older stories.
I really liked Way Station for its contemplation of the above themes. Even though a few parts were a bit slow, overall the story was still compelling since we really got to know Enoch. There’s a huge difference, in my opinion, between stories like this and Flowers for Algernon, and say, any of the recent Heinlein novels I’ve read (sorry, Heinlein). And that is the inclusion of the internal/emotional life of the protagonist. In this case, Enoch’s grappling with his own humanity and what it means to be the keeper of the station. You can imagine a similar story that did not focus on the internal life of the main character so much that would really have been a drag to read.
In conclusion, I think Way Station is a good read for anyone interested in exploring the sci-fi canon. I love the themes of humanity and isolation and the parallels between what’s happening in the Galaxy and what’s happening on Earth (crumbling of brotherhood). This is one of the reasons I love science fiction so much. Looking at and imagining something so other can actually help us get a better look at ourselves.
Up next, Planet of the Apes!
Simak, Clifford D. Way Station. Kindle edition. Open Road Media Media Sci-Fi & Fantasy, 2015.
Author: Clifford D. Simak
Publisher: Doubleday; originally published as Here Gather the Stars in two parts In Galaxy Magazine.