Reviewed by Galen Strickland
When I wrote my profile page on Clifford Simak, I said that this novel was one of the finest the genre has ever produced. After my recent re-read I have no reason to alter that statement. I have edited the paragraph on that page that relates to this book, since I wanted to incorporate some of the comments into this review. One of those comments is that one of the best things about the book is its brevity. Something sorely missing in all literature today, most especially SF and Fantasy, is the strong stand-alone novel. Everything seems to be part of a never ending series of books, with the publishing industry taking pointers from the TV and film companies that only want to rehash stories that have a built-in audience.
Simak accomplishes in mere sentences what other writers would require full chapters. His masterful prose is a blueprint on how to tell a story with wit and style, never losing sight of the fact that in order to be entertained the reader must also sympathize and identify with the protagonist. The main character, Enoch Wallace, is a rarity in SF, a totally three-dimensional character, full of imagination and compassion, but also prone to all of the frailties of his fellow humans. As usual, Simak displays an unwavering faith in humanity, and coupled with the pastoral views of the land around the house and the simple beauty of the untamed wilderness, produces a novel of quiet strengths and boundless optimism.
Originally serialized in Galaxy as "Here Gather the Stars," this novel won a Hugo in 1964. Set in rural Wisconsin, near Simak's home town of Millville, it recounts the strange story of Wallace, a veteran of the Civil War who is still alive, and seemingly never-aging, more than a hundred years later. No date is mentioned, but one can assume the novel is set in present day, the early 1960s at the time of its writing, but Wallace still lives in the house his father built, and it is much as it was when he returned from four long years of war (at least in outwardly appearance). Shortly thereafter, he was approached by a stranger, one who turned out to be an alien who had an unusual offer to extend. Enoch becomes the caretaker of a Galactic way station, wherein aliens travel from planet to planet in the areas of space they have colonized, not in ships but by means of matter transmission. All of the equipment necessary has been installed in his house, including the construction of vast basement space for storage of artifacts given to Enoch by the travellers. The alien's superior technology has made the exterior of the house invulnerable. No one without authorization can enter, plus while Enoch is inside he does not age. Since he only goes out for a daily walk to the mailbox, he only ages about an hour per day on average.
Of course, being set on Earth and among humanity, you know that idyllic condition won't last forever. Rumors surrounding Enoch find their way to the ears of a vacationing government agent, one who takes it upon himself to set up around the clock surveillance of the Wallace homestead. That and certain actions by neighbors of Wallace lead to confrontations that threaten to expose his operation, plus Galactic Central is having internal difficulties of its own which could mean the abandonment of the Earth way station. There is only one plot twist that was telegraphed too early, but for the most part things happen in a random and unpredictable way. It is definitely the best book of Simak's that I have read, but if it has any fault it is perhaps a too optimistic view of how humanity would react to the knowledge of the cosmic reality. I can forgive him for that, since it is the way I would want it to be too.
At the time I wrote his profile page Way Station was the only one of Simak's books in print, but alas that is not the case now, and some of the used copies through amazon are exorbitantly priced. I think it is safe to say that Simak is a relative unknown quantity to many current SF readers, and that is a shame if true. Couple that with the fact that it may be difficult finding used copies of his books, even if you are looking for them, then it is a tragedy.
My Simak profile page
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