Monday, October 19, 2009

1964 Hugo – WAY STATION by Clifford D. Simak

I’m pretty unfamiliar with Simak’s work, and I really had no idea what I was getting into with this one.

Enoch Wallace fought in the American Civil War in the 1860s. In the 1960s, he's still living in his family home in Wisconsin, and he's not any noticeably older. At the beginning of the novel, the CIA takes notice and begins to investigate Enoch. They soon discover a gravestone on his family plot with an infinity sign and alien writing; interred below they find a strange alien corpse.

We soon learn that Enoch's house has been turned into a secret rest stop on an intergalactic highway. Most of the novel, in fact, centers around Enoch's day-to-day existence. Because of his duties, and the fact that he doesn't age, Enoch is very isolated from the world around him. The novel is mostly a thoughtful portrait of a very lonely man. The only connection Enoch has to any of his neighbors is with a deaf-mute girl. He mostly wanders the countryside, reads the newspaper, and tries to connect with the strange aliens who pass through his converted home. Simak really evokes the tranquility and beauty of the rural area that Enoch inhabits, and he also managed to create a very quiet and internalized piece of science fiction that’s still a compelling and thought-provoking read (better than Walter Miller for my money, though Miller received far more accolades). It's a different sort of book, and one that I thoroughly enjoyed.

The novel’s not perfect though. Towards the end, it’s weighed down by a few tacked on action sequences (including a holodeck-like hunting game that Enoch plays), the whole issue of the Earth Way Station suddenly takes on galactic significance, and we get some Cold War-era “can’t we all just get along” preaching. Less would have been more. But, the first part is so strong, and the story of Enoch so quirky and compelling, that I have to rate this as one of my favorites so far and a very pleasant surprise.

Grade: A-

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