Monday, August 31, 2009

Way Station

The great Clifford Simak experiment continues.

After reading a "forgotten classic" by Simak, The Goblin Reservation, and then a collection of short stories, Skirmish, I feel like I have a pretty good grasp of Simak's writing style. But what I haven't been able to figure out is why a number of fellow readers I trust feel so strongly positive about Simak's writing (cf. So, in a final effort to understand his appeal, I turned to Simak's Hugo-winning novel, Way Station, to try to find it. Given that the Hugo is a fan-voted award, it would seem a likely place to find the characteristics that make him so appealing. And given the novels that it beat to win the 1964 Hugo—Glory Road by Heinlein, Witch World by Norton, Dune by Herbert, and Cat's Cradle by Vonnegut—it would have to be pretty darned good.

What I found is a novel rich in potential with a startling scenario that develops some of that potential but is diminished by the ham-handedness of the writing, the same issues I have found with the other Simak I have read in the past couple of months. Imagine: soon after the Civil War, a weary Union soldier back at his home (probably in Wisconsin) is met by the emissary for a galactic confederation, who has decided to put a transfer station in their galactic transport system on Earth. For nearly 100 years, Enoch Wallace has been the sole representative of humanity to a galactic culture, and by all accounts is doing well; transportees apparently seek his station out in order to talk with him and his walls are lined with the gifts of thousands of visitors. Wallace has also taken some effort to learn skills to make him more effective at his job: he has learned the languages of some of the alien races that come to visit him and he has studied the philosophy of some of those races as well. And even when tragedy strikes, the accidental death of a visitor, he acts with care and grace, quickly meeting the mores of the alien culture. By all accounts, he is a model station master.

But Wallace's own earthly surroundings act against him. Given that he has been alive and apparently unaging for over a century brings him to the attention of the CIA, who have started monitoring his every activity (what few there are outside his home) and even go so far as disinterring the inhabitants of the family graveyard. Their concern is stoked by the ongoing cold war, so that the very oddness of Wallace stands out as either a threat or as the potential for a new weapon against American enemies. At the same time, Wallace's neighbor severely beats his deaf-mute daughter, who then seeks asylum with Enoch, sparking the ire and spite of a hillbilly clan. They attempt to force their way into Enoch's home in search for their missing Lucy, only to find that its alien composition is proof against their every attempt. Suddenly their suspicion is raised and they finally recall that Wallace hasn't aged in 100 years and so merits some level of suspicion anyway; they start muttering and gather together with their drinks, forming plans that Wallace is warned will turn into a lynch mob. And as he harbors the neighbor's daughter, Lucy, he discovers that she has some sort of ability to heal those around her.

And then the troubles on Earth seem to leech over to his interactions with Galactic Central. The CIA has disturbed the gravesite of the alien Wallace has buried, raising serious questions about ability of humans to appreciate different cultures and causing a move to have the way station removed from Earth to begin. Wallace uses high-level social mathematics on the cold war and determines that there is no solution that will not result in the Earth being destroyed by its angry inhabitants. Wallace discusses this issue with his best friend an alien he has named Ulysses, who tells him that the confederation might be able to help with its ultimate corrective technique—they can make the entire race stupid, so stupid that they will fall into a dark ages for generations and perhaps arise from it with a newfound appreciation for each other. Finally, the coping device that Wallace has been using for his solitude, an alien tool that allows him to create ghostly friends of any type and personality he wants, goes dreadfully awry such that his constructs—in the form of human companions—have developed sentience and no longer wish to exist only at Wallace's beck and call. To top off what is most likely the worst day in any individual human's experience, Wallace learns that his view of a peaceful harmonious galactic culture is completely wrong; the culture he has worked for and admired for nearly a century is just as fractured and factional as much as Earth's, and Wallace is actually employed by a faction that is slowly losing favor in the opinion of the rest of the galactic culture.

Every bad thing that can happen to Wallace, short of his own injury or death, happens in a single day. Leading up to this bad day, Simak introduces the oddity that is Wallace by letting his audience listen in to the CIA briefing someone about their investigations. This device actually works really well, evoking the strangeness and potential wonder that surrounds Wallace. And then just as we meet Wallace, he has the day from hell; Simak brutally piles up calamity after calamity on Wallace and thus the reader, so that there is a crushing weight of expectation on everything. Wallace actually spends most of his day in solitude and the few interactions we see with other characters, human or otherwise, indicates that he is basically a good person with a strong ethical center. But the calamities that befall Wallace cause him to have to become more independent, re-enforcing his solitude, such that large portions of the book are made up of extended passages of Wallace thinking. And while Simak describes action sequences well, even if that action involves two people having a conversation, when he turns to internal monologue (as he often does in his works), the writing becomes dramatically weaker. Unfortunately, the fairly strong premise of the novel, despite the piling on of catastrophe, forces Wallace to have no one to interact with except himself, in turn forcing the long-winded internal ramblings that we get.

In the moments when Wallace remembers, thinking back to the events that have led him to the situation he finds himself in now, Simak is able to continue to provide action, his strong suit. Simak uses fairly simple declarative sentences, a structure reflecting the relatively straightforward movements of the participants. But the passages when Wallace contemplates his options are also written in the same way, which imply a lack of depth in his thoughts. And since the events that have befallen Wallace are pretty much beyond his control, no solutions are forthcoming, so that we get short declarative thoughts that go around in circles, generally centered on despair at the events which have befallen him. And those passages go on and on, dragging down the tension created by all the calamities until I found myself just pleading with Wallace to do something, anything.

Lying just under the surface of these events is a contemplation of the role of man in a universe made at once more vast than previously imagined and also smaller because of its similarity. Wallace waffles back and forth between leaving Earth behind if the station is closed down and remaining on Earth. But if he were to leave, how would he cope, a lone human in a giant galactic civilization, more alone than any human ever had been before? But if he stays on Earth, how can he cope with having tasted the wonder of a galaxy filled with newness but having it cut off from him forever? And what is Wallace's responsibility to humanity when it seems hell-bent on destroying itself? And is humanity special, somehow different in its individuality or is it just another different species in a wide galactic civilization, not more or less deserving of consideration despite it being our species? These are huge questions, which in the hands of other writers might lead to long thoughtful treatises. But Simak makes such contemplation impossible because the protagonist must deal with his worst day ever, and by the rapidly approaching deadline of nightfall, when the lynch mob intends to arrive at his door.

And then everything gets resolved. I won't spoil it, but thoughtful readers should see the threads of the resolution in the narrative, but it is no less a deus ex machina solution for being foreshadowed. Nearly every single problem Wallace has is resolved in one fell swoop, and the last few pages are spent tying up the loose ends, until we are faced with Wallace's most personal problem, which remains inexplicably unfixable. Simak chooses to resolve the most human difficulty that Wallace faces by asserting human weakness over strength after humanity triumphs in the solution of all else. Simak strives for poignancy in this moment, but fails because his writing style does not allow for poignancy—poignant is not often found in short declarative sentences. The moment reinforces the dichotomy of humanity (or really any race) in this new culture, different but ultimately alone. But it is based on such a clich├ęd moment from other genres that it is ultimately unsatisfying and an unfortunate choice for the final moment in the novel.

I end up desperately wanting to like Way Station, wanting Simak to expand the possibilities by removing some of the disasters and giving Wallace and the readers time to think about the doorstep they find themselves on. Instead, it's compressed and rushed, written in a style not conducive to deeper thought. The result is confusion, a hurry up and wait pace that is resolved through the actions of no one in particular, and the desperate wish that all of it could be given more time to come together.

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