This Immortal by Roger Zelazny
Thoughts inspired by the co-winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel, 1966
In 1966 voters for the Hugo Award apparently had a terrible time deciding which of two novels should receive top honors. I know nothing of what might have been going on behind the scenes in that year (I was 10 years old and reading Tom Swift Jr. adventures at the time, unaware that there was such a thing as science fiction fandom) and haven’t looked into the history of the vote. I probably won’t, either, since that’s not the point of these essays. What I have done is read both books involved, books that ended up tied for the award that year, and so were awarded it jointly. A comparison of these books is illustrative of how diverse the tastes of the science fiction and fantasy community can be, and of the fact that this is nothing new.
This Immortal was originally serialized in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction under the title “…And Call Me Conrad.” The book version, when it was published, was apparently somewhat different, but I’ve only read the book version, so I can’t comment on the changes that were made. The book I read was short, quirky, and tightly written, a first-person narrative from the point of view of a most unusual character. Conrad Nomikos is the product of the radioactive legacy of Earth’s last war, bearing deformities but possessed of enormous physical strength, and quite possibly immortal. A one-time terrorist in an effort to keep the still-ruined Earth from being owned by a race of beings from the Vega star system, Conrad now heads a bureau with the alleged mission of preserving Earth’s remaining cultural treasures. In that capacity he finds himself forced to play tour guide to a visiting Vegan who is not what he seems. As they tour Earth’s ancient ruins, those predating the nuclear war I mean, Conrad discovers a conspiracy to murder the Vegan, for reasons that are not quite clear. Though he finds this Vegan contemptible, Conrad finds himself thrust into the role of protector. The tale that unfolds is an odd one, a tour of the post-holocaust Mediterranean region populated by ordinary people trying to rebuild a world that now includes dangerous mutants, cannibal tribes, and creatures of myth reborn into the waking world. It’s a surreal, imaginative journey, a quest that seems to have no purpose until the mystery is resolved in the end. The tale is told by a character who shows a curious mix of cynicism and compassion, guided by a moral compass that is his alone.
I’d never read This Immortal until now, though I’m certainly familiar with the work of Roger Zelazny. Much of what I first read of Zelazny came in the form of short fiction (“The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth” and “This Moment of the Storm” immediately come to mind), and this short novel felt very much like those works. Had I read it early on, it would have made a strong and positive impression, of the sort that had you seeking other works by that author. As it was, his short fiction led me to other novels, and so I picked this one up already a fan of Zelazny’s work.
A tie for best novel in the Hugo awards is very rare. The tie between This Immortal and Dune was the first, and there have been just two since then. In this case, the two novels involved couldn’t be more different. Dune is long, complicated, vividly described, with multiple points of view that combine to tell a tale of intrigue as vast as a galaxy. This Immortal is short, a there- and-back again tale of adventure and mystery in a setting described with just enough detail to move you through the landscape, all of it seen through the eyes of the character telling the tale. Dune explores lofty themes of religion and philosophy, very much a reflection of culture of the 1960s. This Immortal is rooted, as so many novels of science fiction were in that decade, in the nuclear terrors of the Cold War, mixing a post-apocalyptic tale with an alien contact story. The only thing that really ties these books together is genre.
This says something important about the genre we define, at times rather loosely, as science fiction. Science fiction as a form of literature is difficult to define precisely because it is so wide-ranging in its themes and concepts, so open to experimentation and new ideas. No other genre I know of can touch it in terms of sheer diversity, for diversity seems to be its fundamental nature. Someone once told me that science fiction represents a continuum full of blurred boundaries and fuzzy edges, but that characterization has never satisfied me. It’s more like the literary equivalent of the Hertzsprung-Russell Diagram used by astronomers to classify the stars in their multitude of forms. Instead of a box for this kind of star, and another for those, all the while wondering which box to use for the big, hot, blue one, astronomy has one “box” that holds all stars, while providing a sense of order for their diversity. I sometimes think of the diversity within science fiction represented in this way. Just as stars, while having common characteristics, are not all one kind of thing, so it is with science fiction: a scatter-shot of diversity that, all the same, can be arranged in a sensible fashion and recognized as related forms. Science fiction, as clearly illustrated by this pairing of Hugo winners, has never been a homogeneous thing, and this diversity has only increased in the decades since This Immortal and Dune fell into their first-place tie.
That increase in diversity has created a comparable diversification in the people who read and write such tales. This makes sense. Science fiction, by exploring possibilities over the years, has naturally attracted people who might not, in a bygone age, have been interested in reading space opera adventures. Buck Rogers isn’t for everyone. A happy consequence of diversification is enrichment, as ideas that might once have been beyond the genre are folded into the mix and become grist for the mill. For a genre of fiction proud of its ideas, this can only be a good thing, since new ideas to explore are what it’s all about. Any attempt to limit the steady evolution of the genre, and the diversification these changes bring, is a fool’s errand, and one doomed to fail.
For all my good intentions, I still don’t go out stargazing as often as I did in the years before I launched into self-publishing. It’s hard to justify spending time on a hobby when there are so many stories trying to claw their way out of my head. But the night sky can be insistent, and the urge can become overwhelming. A few days ago it became irresistible.
It was a clear evening, typical of the desert in springtime. The constellations of winter, Orion most prominent among them, were low in the west and slipping away. Sirius blazed and glittered in the southwest. Gemini was high in the west, and Leo was straight overhead with Jupiter just within reach of his paws. The arrangement of planet and constellation brought to mind a kitten chasing a toy, a strange fate for the King of Planets. Rising in the east were the constellations of spring and early summer. Boötes was almost horizontal, as if not quite ready to rise and shine from a long seasonal sleep. The Big Dipper was high in the northeast, and the North Star was, well, where you always find it. Plenty to choose from, in terms of targets, even with the narrow bit of sky I can see from the backyard these days.
In 2003, when I bought the new telescope and began to re-educate myself in the art and science of visual astronomy, setting up on the back porch was a workable option. I lost some of the north and northwest sky to the mesquites growing in the back yard, but there were only a handful of constellations I couldn’t reach. In the years since, the trees have responded to our care by doing what trees do best – growing. Twelve years later, setting up on the back porch leaves me with somewhat limited observing options, which has regrettably discouraged me from observing from home base. That night I was reminded that even a narrow slice of an infinite universe is a busy place.
Using a four-inch refractor under moderately light-polluted skies requires careful target selection. No galaxy hopping this time ‘round; I needed bright lights in the night sky. I went for familiar double stars and spent a lot of time looking at Venus and Jupiter. It was a cool, quiet evening that started out a bit windy, but settled to mere whispers of a breeze. The atmosphere was fairly steady, what astronomers call “good seeing.” The twinkling of stars that you sometimes see, famed in song and nursery rhyme, is actually a bad thing for stargazers. If I’d been able to look up that night and honestly recite “twinkle twinkle, little star,” I’d have gone back in to work on the next book. That didn’t happen, so I gazed the evening away, and was satisfied the time was well spent. If you’re at all moved by the sight of stars, just being out on a clear night will do it for you. I spent as much time seated and looking up, eyes alone, as I did at the eyepiece, relaxed and unworried for a while by recent events.
The Muse, however, is never silent, and for all that I focused my attention on Castor and Pollux, Mizar and Alcor, and the moons of Jupiter, the current work in progress was ever present. Bits of dialogue crept into my thoughts. An idea for resolving a plot wrinkle came to mind. Notes for the book appeared among the observing notes regarding the ruddy gold double star in Leo designated Gamma Leonis. The Muse nudged, but it was gently done, for a change, something always there, but otherwise leaving me at peace under that slice of the night sky. A fact of life, if you’re a writer. It never really stops. I felt no conflict between writing and stargazing as this went on, and that’s likely because amateur astronomy is such a blend of knowledge and imagination. Objects in the night sky are utterly beyond my grasp, and so I can only look at them with my eyes or a telescope, touching them with my thoughts alone. I consider what I’ve read about these things, about how long a star in a double system takes to orbit its companion, about the stars being born in that patch of light beneath Orion’s belt, and they assume a reality of sorts for all that they are far beyond my physical reach.
Telling a tale is much the same thing. The worlds I’ve invented are as unreachable, in their way, as the stars. They are built of knowledge and imagination, but they are real in my imagination, as real as the Orion nebula, because I have what I need, through a lifetime of reading and living, to make them seem tangible. And so it seems perfectly natural that, as I look up at the stars, I take their measure even as I imagine people living out there and having adventures. Stars and stories go together and always have, and I am hardly the first to be moved to tell tales while seated beneath them.
Find part one of this series here: The Stuff of Which Daydreams Are Made
If you give a daydream a long enough leash it will become a story. If you let go of the leash, it’ll run away from you and find someplace suitable to thrive and grow. If you’re a writer, you have no choice but to follow it to that place.
There’s rarely a clear-cut trail that leads you to where the stray daydream finally comes to rest. You have to blaze the trail for yourself, even if the daydream left you with only a vague idea of which way to go. The process of bushwhacking your way to the destination the daydream-story has created is called writing the first draft.
Most writers I know face their greatest challenges while revising and editing a book. Some go so far as to proclaim anything from distaste for, to outright hatred of, this aspect of writing. For me, it’s just the opposite. The first draft puts the grey in my beard. Once I’ve got the first draft done the real fun begins. The trail to what that daydream became is open. The route to the destination that is the story’s ending can now be followed and reshaped to reach its greatest potential. That’s the destination I have in mind when I begin the journey that becomes a book. Once I’ve cut the trail to this place, I can set up camp and go back along the trail to clean it up. After all, I do want others to follow me. This is more easily said than done, so I can understand to a degree why some people feel the way they do, but for me this particular challenge is what it’s all about. As my Kentucky great-grandmother liked to say, “It isn’t work if you enjoy it!”
But I have to get there first, and establishing the trailhead itself is the biggest challenge involved with blazing that trail. It isn’t unusual for me to start a project, get a chapter or two into it, and realize I’m headed in the wrong direction. When that feeling of having gone astray begins to develop, and I recognize it all too well, there’s nothing for it. I back up and start over. I may incorporate some of what I’ve written somewhere along the line, mostly by keeping the ideas in play, but I might start completely from scratch. Even after I’ve worked out of a false start and gained momentum, I very often find that the real trailhead was some ways off from where I thought I needed to begin. It’s not unusual for me to cut out the very first chapter of a book when preparing it for beta readers. Sometimes the biggest mess of all is the trailhead itself, and a better one needs to be found. So let’s say we start the journey by strolling down the hillside, instead of jumping awkwardly off that rocky outcrop.
You don’t make a journey like this alone, of course. Right from the start there’s going to be a character or two at the trailhead with you. The characters that inhabit the daydream are, at this point, mere sketches. I know I need a man here, or a woman there, along with a situation that allows me to set their identities and begin the process of character building. I start out with a fair idea of who these companions are, and what they’re about, but as I cut my way through the wilderness and get to know them better, I often find out I’m wrong. They change with the journey, and that’s as it should be. Experience should show, and the best characters in fiction are always those who are at least a little different in the end from who and what they were in the beginning. Sometimes you learn more about them than you wanted to know, but in the end, the story is the stronger for it.
You don’t come at this task barehanded, of course. You need the proper tools to cut through the undergrowth and then clear the trail. The daydream spun itself out of who and what you are in the first place, and you are the sum total of all your experiences. Everything I’ve ever done, seen, heard, and felt; everything I touch or taste; every pain and exaltation, and all the people I’ve met and either cared about or despised; every book I’ve read – especially the books – all come ready to hand as the trail grows ever longer. Even the research I do is based on what I already know, which provides the frame of reference for the questions the story raises as I work my way to the trail’s end. And yes, I sometimes find myself shaping the right tool for the job and giving it the sharpest possible edge even while I work.
Now and then, from some high place along the way, I can see something of what’s ahead. That’s useful when it happens, so I always take notes! It often looks strangely familiar, even though I’ve never really passed this way before. But then, it was my own daydream, after all.
Thoughts on Dune by Frank Herbert – Winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel, 1966
Books have always played an enormous role in my life, something that was true at a very early age. There’s no practical way now to even estimate how much I read as a boy, but my appetite for books gave me a certain reputation as a youngster, and not always a comfortable one, so it was surely a significant number to have drawn such notice. If I didn’t “have my nose stuck in a book,” as my mother was fond of saying, I was carrying a book with me on the off chance that I’d have a few minutes to read somewhere along the way. It was one of several habits and interests that made it difficult for me to fit in with kids my age, and at the same time made my misfit status easier to bear.
A lot of books, then, and too many to count after the fact. And yet, for all that the number is likely to be large, there are books from those distant years that I remember. They loom large in memory because they came to me at just the right time to have just the right impact on an impressionable and imaginative youth. I can recall clearly being rocked at various times by such books as The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Nightfall and Other Stories, and 2001: A Space Odyssey, to name a few. Of them all, two works stand out clearest, and have best withstood the passing of years, the test of time: Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring, and Frank Herbert’s Dune.
I first read Dune in high school, and came to own a copy almost by accident. I was enrolled in some sort of school-oriented book club in which you earned bonus points with the purchase of books. In the spring of 1970 I had enough points for a couple of free books, and of the books available only two sounded even remotely interesting. Rather than have the points expire at the end of the school year I took a chance, and soon owned copies of The Fellowship of the Ring and Dune. Both books rocked my world. My early relationship with science fiction had been rooted in Tom Swift Jr. adventures, comic books, and B-movies from the ‘50s and ‘60s that I watched while housebound by messy winters in north central Illinois. As I edged into high school the early impressions of the genre were leavened by Heinlein “juveniles” (we’d say YA these days), classics works by H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, and an early introduction to Asimov’s robot stories. It was science fiction in which the hard science idea was the point of the story, often a single idea presented in a “what if” frame of reference. Plot and characters existed only to serve this central “what if,” often with the result that plots were simple and characterization rather shallow or even two-dimensional. The sci-fi I’d experienced to that point didn’t explore multiple themes or sociological ideas (“soft” science), and was rarely character-driven to the point that I could find myself identifying with the characters as real people. Or their world as a place complete unto itself.
So Dune was a shock to the system. I’d never before read a book that held that many layers of complexity. Dune presented me with fallible characters that carried very human contradiction between the roles they knew they should play and what they ended up doing. There was Dr. Yueh, who so deeply loved those he betrayed; Paul Atreides, who avenged his father’s death by becoming something very different from that father; and his mother Jessica, member of an ancient Order seeking to control the fate of humanity through selective breeding, who chose to follow her heart in the end and defy that Order. Dune is a tale of interstellar intrigue and adventure that is wrapped around political conspiracies and a deliberately contrived mysticism that on Arrakis takes on an unexpected life of its own. There were characters with super-normal abilities that were the result of training and discipline, not magic, who yet seem otherworldly at times. And there was the world Arrakis, the desert world with its giant worms, and a warrior race living for a deliberately planted prophecy that was meant to control them, but did something altogether different. There was a drug from the sands, the product of a complicated alien ecology, one that allowed very special individuals to see into the future. Listed this way, it seems a hodge-podge of plot elements, but when you read this novel what you find is a complicated and skillfully twisted braid of plots and subplots that include all these things and more.
Dune is also a product of its times. When written, the social turmoil of the Sixties was heating up. Eastern traditions were becoming popular in the Western world. An awareness of our impact on the world’s ecological systems was growing rapidly, with revelations that alarmed many. You see elements of these issues, among others, reflected in the novel, revealing the author’s awareness of the change unfolding around him. This reflection of what were then current events is one of the things that made the book stand out for me, though I may not have been fully aware of it at the time. I read Dune almost five years after it won the Hugo Award and much of what would have been fresh and raw in American society and politics when the book was written had played out by then. The so-called “drug culture” had lost some of its shock value, and the novelty of those Eastern traditions had faded somewhat. (Americans are so often quick to become complacent even about things they dislike. Especially when it’s happening in the News to someone else.) I was aware, even in my small home town, of these social undercurrents, even though I didn’t truly understand them, and so the book resonated in ways I couldn’t quite put my finger on, and would not recognize until later readings.
I didn’t look at science fiction in the same way after reading Dune. I didn’t know it at the time, but the so-called New Wave in science fiction had just swept over me. Where I had in the past enjoyed the escapism, now I found myself thinking about a story I’d read. Ideas from the tale lingered long after the closing lines. I didn’t just go on to the next book in the stack and plow through it. Somehow, I just couldn’t do that. I’d been too involved with this fictional world to let it go so easily. To be affected by a work of fiction in such a way was a new thing for me. That fiction could do such a thing was a mind-altering revelation.
Eventually, that summer, I caught my breath and picked up the next book in the summer reading pile. Of course, the next book in the stack was The Fellowship of the Ring. That was quite a summer.
Winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel, 1965
For the first time since beginning this series of essays, I find myself dealing with a new-to-me book. In the early 1980s I made it a project to read Hugo-winning novels (and short stories) in an effort to better understand the genre that inspired me to write fiction. During that earlier effort, I was unable to locate a copy of the 1965 winner. The book had apparently gone out of print (I was working in a bookstore at the time and couldn’t special-order a copy for myself), and the few copies I found in used bookstores were either too expensive, or in such bad shape that I passed them by. I always meant to bridge this gap, and this time around was determined to do so. Fortunately, during the intervening years the book was brought back into print, and so tracking down a copy through an online source proved no challenge. At long last, I could read the eleventh novel to win the Hugo Award. After all that time and effort, I suppose it sort of figures that this book doesn’t measure up to those preceding it.
The Wanderer is a tale of disaster on a planetary scale. During a lunar eclipse, a rogue planet suddenly appears in the solar system, so close to the Earth and the Moon that tidal forces are able to tear the Moon apart. The same tidal forces devastate Humanity, creating flood tides of Biblical proportions, triggering massive earthquakes, and setting off super-volcanic eruptions. As civilization is hammered by catastrophes, survivors on Earth and a lunar base seek to unravel the mystery of the Wanderer, as they all come to call the rogue planet. The hardships experienced on Earth are seen through the eyes of survivors scattered around the globe.
As interesting as the premise of this novel surely is, I had quite a bit of trouble getting into the story. There are a lot of points of view used, but there is a lack of consistency in the way they are developed. Three subplots are strongly developed and a number of others weave in and out of the main flow, apparently to add details to illustrate the horrors being inflicted on the people of Earth. Many of these subplots appear and disappear sporadically, and only those that involve the deaths of the characters involved are resolved. One of the throw-away subplots ends with what stands as the worst sex scene I’ve ever encountered as a reader of science fiction. These partially developed subplots ultimately failed to support the story, and left me feeling more distracted than informed. It’s as if the author (and the editor) couldn’t quite decide which story to tell. Two such subplots could have accomplished the job; a less-is-more editorial approach would have greatly improved the structure of the book.
Improved it, but perhaps not rescued it from the cardboard, heavily stereotyped characters that inhabit this tale. Remember how people reacted to the dialog between characters in Star Wars: Attack of the Clones? The characters and their interactions in this novel have that sort of awkwardness. And then there are the aliens responsible for the mess who, when the reader gets to know them, come across as little better than cartoonish.
By the time I was finished with The Wanderer, my reaction was one of puzzlement. This is not what I would call a very well-executed novel, especially when I compare it to Way Station, the previous year’s winner, or with either Dune or This Immortal, the winners (in a tie) of the best-novel Hugo the following year. Was the year in which The Wanderer first saw print a poor year for science fiction? That’s frankly hard to believe. And yet this imperfect book, written by an author who has done much stronger work (including The Big Time which brought a Hugo award to Leiber in 1958) took the honors in 1965. Fame is a fickle thing, and the ways in which it is bestowed often make little sense in retrospect. This is apparently as true in science fiction as it is with any form of entertainment.
This one disappointed me. I expected more of Leiber, being familiar with his work, and felt that The Wanderer fell short of the mark he usually hits. It isn’t a book I’ll ever read again, and as this review makes plain, isn’t one I’d recommend unless you share my desire to read all of the Hugo winners. Or unless you’re curious to see what it is about this book that makes it seem like such a train wreck to me. In which case, read it! I will never, in any of these reviews, tell you that a book is “bad,” or worse, heap venom and scorn on a work just because I don’t like it. If the book fails for me, it might be me and not the book at all. It may be that many others see this book the way I do, but in 1965 readers of science fiction saw The Wander in a very different way. They bestowed upon it the highest honor we have for science fiction. Who was right? Does that even matter? All I can tell you is that the book didn’t work for me and why I felt it failed. In other words, I didn’t like it. To go from saying “I didn’t like it,” to the conclusion that it’s a “bad book” that no one else should read has always seemed to me to be a step too far.
It’s a milestone. It’s also something that was quite likely inevitable, and in time may well become permanent. Now that it’s come, however, I find myself with mixed feelings about it.
Mr. Olcott’s Skies: An Old Book and a Youthful Obsession is no longer my number one seller. My novel The Luck of Han’anga has overtaken it. It’s by just a couple of copies, for the moment, but I’m so accustomed to the memoir outselling the first book of the sci-fi series that the realization that this is no longer the case feels rather odd.
Before any thought of self-published ever occurred to me, I gathered together material to use as a series of astronomy-related essays, intended for posting on the Cloudy Nights amateur astronomy forum. The project was never completed. As I was cleaning up the novel that eventually became The Luck of Han’anga, I realized that I had enough of this material to publish a small book of early astronomy memories. Doing so would provide valuable experience, and if I screwed up I would do so on a relatively small stage. Damage control, it seemed, would be easy, from what I knew of such things at that time. So when I turned The Luck of Han’anga over to beta readers, I began to work on the memoir in earnest, with the idea of using it as a sort of experiment, or a toe stuck in the proverbial waters. During the writing, it took on a life of its own, becoming much more than a test. On March 21st, 2011, I uploaded the book to Kindle Direct Press and Smashwords. It was quite the learning experience, indeed, and it did smooth the way for The Luck of Han’anga, which followed in June of that same year. By then, I’d seen a gratifying number of copies of the memoir sold, but fully expected the novel to go past the memoir in fairly short order.
That’s not what happened. Instead, the memoir sold steadily, and maintained the lead its head start gave it over the novel. It even held on to that lead when the next two novels were released, driving sales of the first novel in the series. Feedback from readers, along the way, both surprised me and helped explain what was happening. This little “experiment” was selling outside the intended niche market. While most of those who discovered Mr. Olcott’s Skies were in fact fellow amateur astronomers, a fair number had no such interests. Some of the non-astronomers were people who had encountered me in various social media venues. Others I can’t account for so easily. Either way, a couple of bucks – for the eBook version – apparently sounded like a small price to pay to satisfy their curiosity, so they gave it a try and found themselves reading a book that reminded them of quieter times in their own lives. It’s a book that apparently takes readers back to memories of their own childhood adventures. To say that this is gratifying would be an understatement.
For more than two years, Mr. Olcott’s Skies led the pack. A small slice of life set in words, an attempt to learn self-publishing, aimed at a niche market and going happily wide of that mark, this little experiment has been one of the real joys of my self-published journey. In our household it came to be known as The Little Book That Could – a reference to an old and revered children’s book. This year, The Luck of Han’anga finally started to eat away at that lead. As the gap began to close, I found myself rooting for the little guy. Perhaps that was foolish, but I couldn’t help myself. Every time a copy sold, I found myself grinning. Still in the lead! Way to go, Little Book That Could!
And now it’s in second place, and that leaves me feeling a bit melancholy. Silly, really, since the book is still “in print,” and will be for as long as I have anything to say about it. (One of the true advantages to being self-published is that you can keep a book out there indefinitely, no matter how slowly it sells.) It will sell additional copies. There will be more readers sharing that starlit journey with me. It may even regain the lead. You never know! And yet, I’m sitting here feeling the way I do when the team I root for loses the World Series. Yes, there’s always “next year,” but still …
Thoughts Inspired by Way Station by Clifford D. Simak, Winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel, 1964
Growing up in the 1960s was a peculiar thing. We were surrounded, as children, by such a mix of confidence and anxiety, high adventure and social unrest, lofty visions loudly proclaimed and horrible nightmares manipulated to manufacture fear – and control. Such was American society in the Cold War. As a pre-teen growing up in that time, I sometimes had nightmares in which tornados, often a clear and present danger in rural Illinois, transformed into the mushroom clouds of nuclear destruction. I didn’t fully understand the nature of the danger, but I could feel the uneasiness, the anxiety, and sometimes outright fear in the adults around me, and images of “The Bomb” were commonplace. The black-and-white B-movies I watched on TV were often tales inspired by the mutant consequences of radioactive disasters. And there were all those duck-and-cover exercises at school, cleverly concealed as “tornado drills.” Our culture was saturated by the fear that the next big war really would be the war to end all wars, because there would be no one left to fight another. Somewhere in my memories of those years I recall telling an uncle that I wanted to be an astronomer if I grew up. I remember this because great concern was expressed over my use of the word “if.”
I was barred from watching the evening news for some time, after that one.
The science fiction of those days, film and print, was heavy with variations on a theme of ultimate war and its consequences. You see this in the novels that won the early Hugo Awards: Bester’s The Demolished Man is set in a post-apocalyptic future; Heinlein’s Starship Troopers depicts a civilization that rose following World War III. These books and others like them at least contain a note of optimism; as in wars past, we survive and rebuild. It’s an optimistic assumption that shows these authors had not the slightest idea what they were talking about. Of course, to be fair, very few people did. More brutally honest is A Canticle for Leibowitz, which depicts the long and agonizing rebirth of a civilization doomed, by its failure to learn the lessons of history, to die again. So many novels, award winners and those passed over, assumed such a war would come, and tried to imagine the consequences of a thing that truly defied imagination. It is not, by its nature, an uplifting body of literature.
In the midst of this, in 1963, Clifford D. Simak added his own take on the troubles of those times, a book that stands in powerful contrast to so many other sci-fi tales from the Sixties. Way Station, winner of the 1964 Hugo Award for Best Novel, is the story of a man who survived the worst of the American Civil War, and who finds himself, shortly after, recruited to run a relay station for a galactic civilization. This civilization uses a strange form of teleportation to bridge the vastness of interstellar space, and knit a multitude of species into one star-spanning community. Enoch Wallace has hardly aged at all in the hundred years that followed, sustained by an aspect of the galactic technology for which he is Earth’s only, and completely unknown, custodian. Unfortunately, after a century of meeting and befriending hundreds of alien beings from dozens of species and cultures, Enoch’s quiet existence as station keeper is threatened. Someone from a government agency has realized Enoch is the same man who came home from the Civil War long ago. And in coming to the aid of an abused deaf/mute girl, Enoch has come into conflict with her family, and drawn to himself exactly the wrong sort of attention. Discord in the galactic civilization threatens to shut down his way station, leaving him the choice of being abandoned where he is on a world of which he is no longer truly a part, or himself abandoning the world of his birth forever. On top of all of this, that very same world is on the verge of blowing itself to bits. Calculations using the advanced mathematics of the galaxy show that Earth’s destruction by way of nuclear holocaust is inevitable, and the cure suggested by Enoch’s alien friends is almost as bad as war itself.
In resolving these conflicts, Simak weaves a compelling tale of interstellar intrigue and very human drama. The resolution to it all is sudden, a bit fanciful, but very satisfying. It’s also more than a bit melancholy, for the hero does pay a price to hold on to the life he has come to cherish. It ends not with a bang, but a whisper. But the story overall is one of hope, and not calamity. This is a novel that looks at the Cold War tensions of those unsettled and uncertain years not from the perspective of how bad things might turn out, but with the idea that what might seem unavoidable could, in fact, be prevented. Way Station stands apart in an era of sci-fi nuclear holocaust novels in a refreshing and thoughtful way. It also holds up well to the passage of many years, and seems not in the least bit dated. I first read this book when I was in high school, almost a decade after it was published, and was fascinated by its very different take on how a galaxy-spanning civilization might work, and how Earth might take part. Now, so many years later, with the bad dreams of glowing mutant tornado mushroom clouds fading into memory, I have a different and perhaps improved idea of why the book appealed to me. It presents a positive vision, based as it is on the thought that the worst need not come to be. It was a story of hope and melancholy, and what teenage loner growing up in troubled times could resist such a tale?