Way Station

By: Clifford D. Simak

Enoch Wallace is not like other humans. Living a secluded life in the backwoods of Wisconsin, he carries a nineteenth-century rifle and never seems to age—a fact that has recently caught the attention of prying government eyes. The truth is, Enoch is the last surviving veteran of the American Civil War and, for close to a century, he has operated a secret way station for aliens passing through on journeys to other stars. But the gifts of knowledge and immortality that his intergalactic guests have bestowed upon him are proving to be a nightmarish burden, for they have opened Enoch’s eyes to humanity’s impending destruction.

Way Station was my second Simak book after City and I can confirm that both have a similar tone. Simak is known for his humanization of aliens and animals focusing on how all species can work together and find common ground rather than compete for resources. His characters are not violent or mean spirited which highlights the absurdity of the human drive for war especially when compared to the advanced civilizations of the galaxy that have formed a harmonious confraternity. 

I don’t know if Simak had an interest in philosophy, but I would guess that he did given the themes in his stories. One question he poses is this: Is it better to prevent the extinction of the human race forcibly making everyone technologically inept for a couple of generations or bet that humans are wise enough not to use weapons of mass destruction? In this story, Enoch used alien statistics to calculate that nuclear war on Earth is imminent. When he presents his findings to his alien friend, Ulysses, the alien suggests petitioning the galactic council to essentially send humanity back to the stone age. The effects would not be permanent but the sudden shock of civilization’s collapse would be enough to create a more harmonious species. At least, that’s the theory. I won’t share with you whether that actually happens or not, but Enoch worries significantly over these choices. 

Another philosophical question mimics that of the famous ship of Theseus. In this universe, aliens have the ability to travel great distances by jumping from way station to way station. The catch is that each way station is assembling a new body particle by particle and transferring that alien’s consciousness with each jump. When the alien is constructed at the new station, they don’t feel any different then they did when they were at their previous destination but what remains when they leave is a lifeless husk of their former self which gets turned into goo. Would you consider yourself to be the same person if you got a new body every time you traveled to a new location and does it matter if the body is different if the consciousness is the same? 

The third big question is that of what it means to be human. One could argue that humanity is the sum of all the knowledge we have amassed over the course of our brief existence. Our successes and failures are uniquely our own with no outside intervention. If however, we were to join a galactic confraternity where we gained the knowledge and understanding of other races, we would never be able to return to the lives we once had. Humanity would be irreversibly altered, even if for the better. What then would it mean to be human? Would our understanding of life on other planets mean we have to forfeit part of what defines our race?

Clifford Simak was truly a genius of his craft and exemplified what a Master of Science Fiction should be. I hold him in high regard even compared to Ray Bradbury which says a lot. I would definitely recommend reading this story though if I had to suggest either this or City for your first read, I would definitely start with City

Way Station didn’t go in the direction I was expecting it to. I thought it would be more about Enoch’s experience with various alien species but turned into more of a story about whether he should tell other people about the aliens that are coming to his house. Regardless, I enjoyed the themes and I hope you do as well if you choose to pick this up!

Overall rating: 4 stars 

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