Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Book: Clifford D. Simak - Way Station (1963)

Have you ever heard of the term space opera? To those familiar with the science fiction genre it has a history of meaning and nowadays it is broadly used to designate a dramatic, large-scale epic involving aliens, space battles and heroic adventures on other planets. Like Star Wars. Way Station is none of that. It is about an old veteran of the American civil war, living like a hermit in an old wooden house with his rifle in a country of small-minded hillbillies.

Yet it is sometimes called a space opera. It is the most unique, heartwarming, one-of-a-kind novel. Enoch Wallace lives by himself in a valley in the middle of nowhere and he is 124 years old, but doesn’t look a day older than 30. By day he recieves the mail, sometimes interacts with his redneck neighbors and their deaf daughter, and disappears again into his wooden house. Unknown to others, the back room of his house is also an intergalactic way station, that recieves alien visitors and sents them on their way again. But the CIA takes notice and begins to spy…

There is hardly any action in this book. No space battles and otherworldly adventures. Instead it is soft and quiet and Wallace is a low-key, warm character. But I could not put this book down for a second. It is a small and fast-moving story and at the same time a bit philosophical and even mystical. It is filled with alien artifacts that forever remain a mystery and now and then an alien drops by for a cup of coffee. Simak hardly explains anything, but gives us small glimpses of the wonders out there in space. He lifts the curtains only a second to show what is waiting for us when we are ready to join the rest of the universe.

If the down-to-earth Enoch Wallace can open his mind to the wonders of the universe in his own back room, then so can we all. 40 years after publication, no writer has yet published something remotely similar to this little novel, and its small number of pages is a small price to pay for such a rich and timeless story.

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