Tucked away in an isolated corner of Wisconsin farmland is an old house that dates from before the Civil War, but it’s strangely unchanged in all that time. So is the man who lives there, Enoch Wallace, who fought with the Union Army in that conflict and is now still alive more than a hundred years later and apparently not much older than when he fought at Gettysburg. Enoch’s secret is that inside the house is an intergalactic transport apparatus, and he’s the keeper of Galactic Central’s way station on Earth.
That’s the set-up of Clifford D. Simak’s Hugo-winning novel WAY STATION, first published in 1963 and reprinted several times since. Simak was a veteran of the science fiction pulps dating back to before what’s now considered the Golden Age of those magazines, and as the pulps faded he made a seamless transition to writing well-received hardback SF novels. Although he wrote some Western stories for the pulps and later dabbled in fantasy novels as well, he’s best remembered for what some have called pastoral SF – stories and novels usually taking place in rural settings, with low-key, somewhat unsophisticated (at least on the surface) protagonists. WAY STATION fits neatly into that sub-category and may well be the best example of it I’ve encountered.
Simak was never a flashy writer. His prose style is functional and plain-spoken, like the people he writes about. In WAY STATION, the story unfolds in a gentle, leisurely fashion, with the main elements of the plot never really getting into gear until about halfway through the book. Most writers today couldn’t get away with that, but Simak makes it work. And once things do start rolling, the scope of the story rapidly expands, with the fate of entire galaxies ultimately at stake, even though all the action takes place here on Earth.
When I was younger, I read a number of Simak’s novels, and while I enjoyed them, he was never a particular favorite of mine. I think maybe I just wasn’t ready to appreciate his virtues. WAY STATION is a fine novel and has dated hardly at all. I plan to read more of his work soon.