Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Review of “Way Station” novel by Clifford D Simak

Enoch Wallace fought in the American Civil War. In the 1960’s he is still alive, living reclusively in a mysterious house in Wisconsin, still looking like he is in his thirties. Eventually this attracts attention. After several initial changes in perspective, we settle into Enoch’s point of view; a humble man trying to manage a secret space depot for aliens while worrying about a potential nuclear war. Think of it as a bucolic “Men In Black with the tone of a quiet picnic.

The Good:
Enoch Wallace is an instantly likable character, an intelligent country man who keeps mostly to himself but is friendly to all and generally means well. Hearing about Enoch’s minor adventures (which generally come to him, because they almost all occur in or around his house) is consistently pleasant. Through Enoch’s way station, Simak conveys his unadulterated humanism and his belief that humankind understands only the tiniest of all fractions of the universe and so should be humble and treat things in their proper proportions. Without preaching, Simak gets across the heart of his simple story in a well-mannered and steadily-paced classical story.

The Bad:
Though occasionally refreshing in its old-fashion Midwestern style, Simak’s novel is a little too simple and easy when it comes to big issues such as: How should we achieve world peace? Does all life have a soul? Are violence and death necessary to civilization? What defines a “good” person? Etc. Reducing these questions to easy answers deprives the reader of deeper engagement and robs the topics of their fascinating nuances. Ultimately one feels that Simak achieves his humanist paradise by wishful thinking, a problem exasperated by his use of several last-act coincidences culminating in a total dues ex machina. This “victory,” too easily bought, feels cheap.

That laid-back prose fits the story with its lack of pretension or artistic self-consciousness, but feels flat viewed today, 40 years later. The optimistic tale where the protagonist is an isolationist throwback to a century earlier and the antagonists are all far away and vague (only forming into a character to be challenged at the last minute) seems fearful of confronting the genuine reality of a fast-changing, highly-turbulent and diverse society.

Grade: B-

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