Mining the Genre Asteroid: Way Station and the works of Clifford Simak
Enoch Wallace has a secret. Okay, he actually has two. Almost a century after the Civil War, this veteran of that divisive conflict has been quietly living in the Driftless Area of southwestern Wisconsin. He has some strange neighbors (including a family whose deaf-mute daughter has some rather strange abilities) and only uses his gun in a virtual reality simulator. His second secret, though is even bigger than the first. Enoch Wallace hides an interstellar transfer point for aliens to travel through the galaxy. It is his charge to keep this important facility safe, and secret. But now the U.S. government is very interested in Enoch, enough to go snooping around. Furthermore, the Galactic Council that set up the transfer point is fracturing and falling apart. Oh, and Enoch’s use of alien mathematics is leading him to conclude that nuclear war is coming, soon. All this means an uncertain future for both Enoch and his Way Station.
Way Station is just one of the many works of Clifford Simak. Simak’s writing, in numerous novels and stories, spans the 1950’s through the 1980’s. Way Station’s strengths, styles and themes are a microcosm and representative of Simak’s work. Rural Midwest setting. Strong focus on a character, often one experiencing an isolation of one sort or another. Novels jammed packed with science fictional ideas, less interested in the nuts and bolts of the engineering of same and more interested in tossing the SFnal ideas out there. The exploration of human drives, and the dangers of what our very human drives might do to ourselves, and to those around us. There is a definite Cold-War vibe to Way Station, but the concerns raised in the novel are universal, and transcend the 1950’s era in which it was written.
Among many of the other themes he explores is the intersection between the alien and the human. One of my favorite stories, “The Big Front Yard”, has the protagonist’s house transported via a stargate to an alien planet. “Desertion”, perhaps his universally favorite story (and part of City), has a human base on a Jupiter with a solid surface. The changes needed to explore such an environment and dealing with its alienness brings this theme into hard relief. And “Construction Shack” has humans reach Pluto and find out what it really is, and what its really *for*.
The work of Clifford Simak extends far beyond the boundaries of Way Station, though! The Goblin Reservation has a traveler in time and space investigating his own apparent death at Time University. And did I mention the biomechanical sabertooth tiger? City is a haunting fixup collection of stories about the future of man, of robots, and intelligent dogs. Project Pope has a society of robots on a distant planet trying to find the ultimate truth by building an infallible computerized conduit to God. And there is much more for readers new to Simak to discover among his oeuvre.
Echoes of Simak’s work propagate from his novels and stories to this day. Kim Stanley Robinson partially got into Science Fiction after reading The Goblin Reservation. The pastoral gentle voice of the novel is not particular popular today, although I strongly suspect Le Guin was influenced by Simak’s style. And Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon? Simak, and many of his protagonists would fit right at home here.
There are the giants of science fiction and fantasy in their day, the memories of which are for many an ancient world fading into twilight. There are the hardworking and hard scrabble authors whose contributions are too often already forgotten. And then there are the odd ducks, the odd corners of the tapestry of science fiction and fantasy. Zenna Henderson (as seen in a previous column) is one of those odd ducks. And most definitely, along with her, the pastoral work of Clifford Simak. Unlike her, too much of his work is out of print, and requires effort* to find that is well worth the exertion. Were he alive, Simak would probably modestly say that he and his work weren’t worth such pains; I strongly think otherwise.
* For U.S and Canadian readers particularly; British readers with e-readers should go straightaway to the SF Gateway [http://www.sfgateway.com/authors/s/simak-clifford-d/]