Review of Way Station by Clifford D. Simak

SFFaudio Review

Audible Frontiers - Way Station by Clifford D. SimakSFFaudio EssentialWay Station
By Clifford D. Simak; Read by Eric Michael Summerer
Audible Download – Approx. 7 Hours 5 Minutes [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Audible Frontiers
Published: 2009
Themes: / Science Fiction / Aliens / Galactic Civilization / Immortality /

In this Hugo Award-winning classic, Enoch Wallace is an ageless hermit, striding across his untended farm as he has done for over a century, still carrying the gun with which he had served in the Civil War. But what his neighbors must never know is that, inside his unchanging house, he meets with a host of unimaginable friends from the farthest stars.

This story spans more than a century, but most of the ‘action’ takes place in the middle of the 20th century, over a couple of months. See, a friendly alien recruited Enoch Wallace to become something of a galactic station master shortly after the American Civil War. Now, with his neighbors generally accepting his mysterious eternal youth, Enoch has a curious and unseen visitor watching him from the woods. Enoch is lonely, with his only friends being a completely deaf and mute young woman and his kindly mailman. Will the visitor in the trees learn the truth? Will Enoch help guide the Earth to its ultimate destiny? Read on!

I find myself arguing with a lot of my fiction writing friends about what makes a good story. They typically talk about ‘the rules’ or ‘the formula’ that makes a story work. I typically talk about clarity, consistency (story logic) and originality of a story. We usually agree about style.

A couple years back a friend of mine (a filmmaker and used bookstore owner) was telling me about one of the scripts he was working on. He said something to the effect of “every story must have conflict.” That’s probably not a new concept, not original to him, but it was new to me – at least in those words. Now I love such sweeping declarations – they give my dialectical brain something to hack away at. It seems a fairly straightforward a concept – and on the face of it seems likely – but, that always gets me thinking: If it sounds so obvious it is probably at least partially false. So I thought about it for maybe thirty seconds and then pointed out that ‘pornographic films need not have conflict – but they can still have a story.’ Illustrating I said “Pizza delivery guy comes to the door – half naked woman answers – sex follows.” It has a beginning, a middle and a money shot. My friend and I both laughed. But, I’ve been thinking about this meme ever since. Now, with Way Station I think I have a more serious defeater to my friend’s all encompassing rule about storytelling. There is very little conflict in Way Station. That is actually a pretty common thing for author Clifford D. Simak. His stories are highly pastoral, full of backstories being revealed, mysterious farmers and friendly aliens. Conflict may be mentioned, as having happened long ago (or in some distant future) – but shots are rarely fired in anger. I’m thinking back on all of the Simak I’ve read, and in it all I can’t recall much conflict at all. And yet, I love his stories.

Eric Michael Summerer does a terrific job narrating this pastoral masterpiece. He portrays Simak’s characters with all the honesty, decency, and humanity that Clifford D. Simak put into them. Audible Frontiers has very kindly added an excellent and informative introduction written and read by another of Science Fiction’s most humane authors, Mike Resnick! Audible Frontiers has been adding so many new titles it is hard to keep up. This one will slow things down for you and even make life a little simpler. Thanks Simak!

Posted by Jesse Willis

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13 thoughts to “Review of Way Station by Clifford D. Simak”

  1. SPOILERS!

    I am about two-thirds of the way through this book and am wondering if you actually have an abridged copy to say there is very little conflict. There is conflict from the very beginning starting with the agent’s report. When one adds in Enoch’s internal conflict both emotionally, in his necessary separation from the outside world, and with his desires for Earthmen as a whole; his conflict with the Fishers; a faction of the Galaxy’s conflict with Earth;; and, as has just been revealed, possible conflict with an angry mob. Not to mention the conflict within the Galaxy over expansion, largely due to the loss of the Talisman.

    I agree that this is communicated in a gentle, thoughtful way generally but that is very far from having conflict largely absent. It is woven throughout the book. I submit and argue strongly that this book upholds the “necessary conflict” standard.

    Although I am also grateful for your stance as it propelled me to seek out the book which I am greatly enjoying and, indeed, foresee that I must buy for rereading.

  2. SPOILER STILL!

    I forgot to add that this is a simple enough story that one sees already the location of the Talisman and it’s sensitive operator as soon as the Talisman is explained. That is not a lack of conflict necessarily, but merely a transparent part of the story which can be easily foreseen.

  3. Julie,

    The audiobook is definitely unabridged.

    Probably best not to read my responses til you finish the book.

    I will admit there is certainly an air of possible conflict from chapter to chapter. Like you said, the government agent who gives his report, he doesn’t have all the facts – as those facts come to light there certainly is the possibility of conflict – but does it come to fruition?

    For instance, there’s the matter of the body in the grave being removed. When Enoch says “I need that body back ASAP” he gets it back ASAP.

    Also, recall Chekhov’s rule about a gun over a mantle. There’s a gun in this story, it is fired. But is it ever fired in anger? Does it resolve a conflict? There’s a scene in which Enoch is practicing his marksmanship, but the way its structured we think he’s killing living targets (thus conflict), but then we are shown the truth, that it’s a special alien holographic shooting range. When the gun get’s used for real in the third ac, again the gun is brought out – but does it resolve the conflict? Enoch’s a highly skilled marksman, but the gun doesn’t solve a conflict.

    As to the galactic conflict, I agree there is definitely some sort of friction between aliens out there, but is that not like saying there is conflict in Canada because refugees coming to Canada from Sudan are saying there is conflict in Sudan?

    I think most stories do rely on conflict to drive the plot. But I worry that the problem with defining conflict as a mystery as a two characters in conversation may reveal that we’re stretching the definition of conflict. Is a big central or even a series of small conflicts the essential character of Waystation? Or are those mysteries that get revealed more like getting to know a friend? Or even like hearing him tell you a story about his childhood?

  4. I have finished the book and definitely disagree with your definition of conflict. Enoch has many conflicts. It doesn’t matter whether they are acted upon. They are what drive the action as we see, for example, in his mental state of trying to reconcile his humanity with a possible larger destiny. Resolution to the conflict is not necessarily required. It is our interest in the conflict that makes the story applicable to our lives and being interested in what it going on. For example, in The Franchise Affair, there is very little of what you would call “action” but there is PLENTY of conflict between many characters and it causes much angst. This is still conflict and it is worthy of great story telling.

    And when you say that galactic conflict does not come into the story, what would you call the gun-toting alien who tries to kill Enoch and then goes out into the wide world?

    No, no, no … plenty of conflict, even if it is written about in a way that you perceive as too gentle. About which, I also disagree.

    Although, yes, some of the scenarios are solved too easily. But those were not the conflicts which Simak was interested in exploring (for example the body being stolen … that was a device to bring about a greater conflict for Enoch to consider and deal with).

  5. I wouldn’t call it “too gentle.” The word “too” implies a negative. I love how gentle and relaxed Waysation is.

    Nothing feels forced. Simak is telling a story without following any sort of Aristotelian story formula.

    I love Simak’s stories, in part because they are so very different than other writers.

    I guess you’re talking about the idea of ‘man against himself’ when you say Enoch is reconciling “his humanity with a possible larger destiny.” I think it had the potential to go that way, but I’m not sure it did. Just like the gun being used in the final act. We see that as a possibility, but it didn’t come to fruition in the way any formula would have dictated.

    One other thing to consider – if I am to accept the idea that ‘every story must have conflict’ – I must accept this as a claim of the kind like that of: “all men are mortal.” What I mean, that it iwould have to be a general claim about all stories rather than as a specific claim such as “Jesse is mortal.” We could easily test the latter, but the former is subject to a far more rigorous standard.

    General claims about “all” (anythings) must be very wary of being labeled only tautologically true. To avoid this fate they must be at least logically falsifiable (or logically refutable). What I mean is there must be the logical possibility that “there is a story without conflict” and that “it would look like…X”. Without that, we have a truth, but in only of the “trivially true” kind (like saying “all bachelors are unmarried males).

    To restate, if we cannot find even a theoretical story without conflict, then we have simply described all stories as being conflicts in narrative form. That doesn’t sound right to me, not when reading a Simak story anyway.

    BTW, that something is “falsifiable” only means that if it is false, then this can be shown by observation or experiment.

  6. “Enoch is reconciling “his humanity with a possible larger destiny.” I”

    My meaning in this was to try to avoid spoilers. Which I won’t bother about any more. He’s trying to figure out where he would go if the station had to be shut down. Earth? The galaxy? This is a pressing worry as he packs. Perhaps our problem is that I am not thinking loftily about such things as “man against himself” but rather of very concrete examples such as the girl who is whipped by her father and runs to Enoch for help … while he holds them off with his rifle.

    Reading through your comments, it occurs to me that our basic disagreement seems to be that you feel conflict must have resolution to be considered true “conflict.” Resolution is not required for conflict to be present. I even resorted to that tired old tactic of looking through dictionary definitions of conflict, which has a surprising amount of variations and applications.

    Listening to part of The Scarlet Letter this morning I realized that this book also would probably go down as a “nonconflict” book by my understanding of your argument. As would The Dauthger of Time by Josephine Tey. As would several of the gentler Agatha Christie mysteries.

    These books are very different enough from each other and from Simak’s Way Station and they are far from being “conflict in narrative form.” Yet each has conflict within it. Otherwise we might as well be reading a travelogue.

    I have been racking my brains for a story without conflict of some sort. Can’t think of one.

  7. The best example of a real story without conflict that I have come across so far is Waystation. One reason it is a particularily good example is that it is a very good novel – and that makes it less likely to be rejoinded by some point like…

    ‘All GOOD stories have conflict.’

    Don’t feel silly about looking up something in the dictionary. I do it multiple times daily. Love th things. Sometimes I just read dictionaries without the prompt. Words are ideas. I love ideas.

  8. More thoughts…

    James Powell describes himself as a “pussycat writer” because his stories tend to not put murder and violence on the page, having them happen “offscreen” as it were. This is kind of like avoiding the conflict directly. I can’t say that a lot of what I’ve read of his (or even of what you’ve read aloud) is conflict free though. It is conflict adverse. ;)

  9. Nooooooo! Conflict happening offscreen doesn’t mean that there is no conflict! Aaargh … just a sec, let me get my shoe off so I can bang it on the table.

    Darn. Soft soled shoe. Must go get a different shoe.

  10. Rereading your review, I came across this statement: “If it sounds so obvious it is probably at least partially false.”

    I have to take issue with that concept as a whole. There is nothing wrong with examining ideas that seem too simple to be true. However, to go in with the mindset that if something is straight forward then it is probably partially false is a prejudice that just doesn’t make sense. I mean, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar and to extrapolate too much is to deliberately bend things into shapes they were not meant to take on … just for the sake of argument.

    Although looking back at that comment, it seems unnecessarily complicated in itself.

    To summarize: Occam’s razor.

  11. I like that you bring up the Freud supposed defense of his theory. Freud’s is an excellent example of a theory so encompassing that it purports to explain everything about human behavior. It’s a sweeping vision. Like any sweeping vision it has an explanation for everything – which is why it is so attractive, and conversely why it is so flawed. Like those who believe in astrology, his theory cannot be defeated by merely pointing to a few concrete errors of prediction and explanation. They are immediately rejected. Instead you have to show that it is a non-falsifiable theory in order to show it as invalid.

    Take two statements:

    1. Jesse is immortal.

    2. Puppies are better than kittens.

    Statement one can be shown to be false rather easily. Kill Jesse, burn his body.

    Statement two, on the other hand, cannot be easily shown to be false. For even if I can show you a bunch of reasons why any particular kitten is far superior to any particular puppy, my sweeping declaration (statement 2) doesn’t guarantee that it is universally true of all puppies and all kittens. One exception doesn’t defeat such a statement. Just like Freud (purportedly) would argue about his cigar.

    Sometimes a statement isn’t wrong – it’s of the far more insidious “not even wrong” kind. Theories which cannot be falsified or used to predict anything fall into this category.

  12. I see that perhaps your last comment explains why you deny literary conflict can be simple, or that theories can. Sir, I salute the way you complicated things way beyond necessary to make your point. Although I stick by my original claim. :-D

    And Occam’s Razor?

  13. To the Franciscan friar of formulaic frugality I respond thusly:

    “Entities must not be reduced to the point of inadequacy” – Karl Menger

    :D

    Seriously tho…

    My main man Karl Popper argued that an argument for simplicity may be justified by his falsifiability criterion.

    Occam’s axiom is easy to wield but difficult to wield well.

    I’m not saying there isn’t something to this idea that “every story has conflict” I’m suggesting that it isn’t necessarily the case they are as synonymous. I have to have something to write about in these reviews Julie!! ;)

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