Aliens! Immortality! Intergalactic intrigue! Government spies! Armageddon on the horizon! The 1964 Hugo winner, Way Station by Clifford D. Simak, has all of these things and much, much less.
Last time I wrote that The Man in the High Castle marks where science fiction breaks away from its Golden Age, but of course it's not that simple. Clear demarcations are rare in real life, and both Simak and Way Station (originally published as Here Gather the Stars) seem much more closely tied to an earlier era than Philip K. Dick's work does.
It's a combination of things: There's the elegant but totally straightforward, almost empty writing style. (I don't mean "empty" in a bad way. But whereas with, say, Heinlein, Dick, or Roger Zelazny, an obvious voice comes through in almost all their work — boisterous, bleak, and wry, respectively — Simak as an author is invisible, which is how so many of the early authors read.) There's the Twilight Zone–like dialogue, cast, setting, and plot: The story is about Enoch Wallace, a Civil War veteran living in post-WWII rural Wisconsin who still looks like he's 30, because he's secretly the keeper of an intergalactic stopover point for traveling aliens. He's being watched by a government agent, his hillbilly neighbors are nervous of him, and worst of all, he's used extraterrestrial math to determine that humanity is likely on the verge of annihilating itself.
Most tellingly is how uncomplicatedly all of this — plus plot points involving a deaf-mute girl, a set of animated memories Enoch has created for company, a spiritual force that is empirically detectable, and interstellar political intrigues that threaten to shut down the way station — is handled. If The Man in the High Castle anticipates a world where solid answers are increasingly harder to come by, Way Station doesn't even begin to explore the innumerable ancillary questions it raises.
Some, the book explains away: Enoch's neighbors are suspicious of him but don't publicize the fact that the hermit in the old house has been young for over a century because they're private-minded, taciturn country folk, more distrustful of outsiders than their own weirdos. OK, I'll buy that. Other issues, though, like how the federal agent observing him is unhampered by red tape, to the point where he can reprocure alien property he's turned over to his bosses within twenty-four hours, no questions asked, are tougher to ignore. I mean, has life ever been that simple?
No, it hasn't. And though stories are by nature nowhere as complex as life, and shouldn't have to be — even the most true-to-life are escapist in that they let us look at our world from inside another — Way Station is harder to take seriously because it simultaneously hews to a such a plainspoken picture of the world while also cleaning up every loose end, including the impending apocalypse, so neatly. It's certainly not a bad book — and granted, I get to say this with the benefit of hindsight — but when one learns that it beat out Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle for the award, one can't help but think of Jethro Tull and Metallica.
I won't criticize the book for its technology, despite the fact that it involves printing things on metal plates, because I don't think authors are obligated to be futurists, much less accurate futurists. And actually, the alien's method of traveling to the way station is pretty nifty — predating Takeshi Kovacs as it does by almost forty years — although again, it suggests philosophical problems that seem like more interesting fodder than the ones the book tackles. Enoch's Danger Room–style basement is pretty sweet too, even if his visit to it feels like a random interlude.
I don't know. I think it must have been nice to be a science-fiction writer at the time when Way Station was published. Time was still moving relatively slowly (though I'm sure it didn't feel that way), and you could just write a story without worrying that you hadn't addressed every single implication and repercussion of the cool ideas you came up with. Or, I guess you don't have to worry about that now, but sometimes it feels to me like you do. That said, I think I like it better the way it is now. I don't ever regret having read a book, but I wouldn't recommend you run out and find this one. If humanity ever wants to be ready to join "the cofraternity of the stars," as Simak puts it so many times, then it's probably a good thing popular SF graduated to a more thoughtful, engaging level of storytelling.
"Blogging the Hugos" appears every other weekend. In the next installment: The Wanderer, by Fritz Leiber, from 1965.
Josh Wimmer is a freelance writer in Madison, WI. He can usually be found here.