Sunday, August 26, 2012

#129: Non-Stop, #84: Way Station


"...savagery --unlike virtue --endures long after its originators have perished."
"Adversity makes thinkers of us all."
"Instinct is not always the ally of intelligence." 
"It's a ship, you see, and it's headed nobody-knows-where, and it's old and creaking, and it's thick with phantoms and mysteries and riddles and pain --and some poor bastard has got to sort it all out soon before it's too late, if it's not already too late!"
Before I begin my review of Brian Aldiss's hidden gem of a sci-fi novel, Non-Stop, I must give the reader a bit of an obligatory "spoiler-alert". In this review I will acknowledge the fundamental premise of this novel, simply because I cannot review this book without doing so. If you like walking into a book completely blind and un-knowing, I can tell you that this novel is highly recommended and leave it at that. For the rest, here's my review of this incredibly original, fascinating, page-turner of a novel. Non-Stop is the story of a generation ship --a spaceship traveling such a vast amount of distance between destinations that many generations are born and many generations die as the ship makes its voyage. This knowledge has been lost to Roy Complain and Henry Marapper, our two protagonists. They are men from the Greene tribe, a violent, brutish pack of people who live in "Quarters", a village somewhere in the ship. At this point, the ship has been overrun by hydroponic plants, or "ponics", and savage people, some who have formed tribes with the barest semblance of civilization. This is the only world that these savages have ever known. There are whispered rumors that their entire existence has been lived out inside the belly of an enormous starship streaking through the cosmos, but most tribesmen scoff at the theory.
Complain and Marapper's tribe is also described as having some interesting rituals and customs in the novel's opening scenes. We see Complain hunting in the ponics, experience parts of the primitive culture of the Greene tribe, and are generally thrust into a situation in which no one really knows the truth about existence as a whole. The quasi-religious "Teaching" of the Greene tribe is particularly interesting --it it based on an insistence on openness and a rejection of the subconscious. Quite Freudian, in fact. Marapper, a priest of the Greene tribe, decides to gather a small band of men, including Complain, to break out of the confines of the tribe, wade through the dense forests of ponics, and find the truth for himself. The novel speeds up to an almost break-neck pace after these introductory scenes as the band embarks on an treacherous adventure filled with sentient rats, strange Outsiders, and mysterious Giants.
I won't give away anymore besides this: the band soon gathers more and more evidence that they are on a ship, and eventually, the fact is accepted. The novel's ending is startling, ambiguous, and illuminating. It's definitely one that will get you thinking. All in all, there were so many factors that made Non-Stop an engrossing read. The plot is like a stone rolling faster and faster down a hill --the scenes in Quarters are interesting enough in themselves, but once the group leaves Quarters, get ready for a stream of action, problems, and questions that piles up with increasing speed. Certain scenes that stuck out included Complain's discovery of the ship's swimming pool, which is described with an awe-inspiring, ethereal beauty. In addition, Complain's first glimpse of the sun is well done and poignant. In terms of action scenes, I cannot choose a favorite; there were many of them, and all well done. One plot aspect that had a bit of a cheesy, 1950s-esque SF feel to it was the plot line concerning sentient rats. Aside from this, the novel has dated extremely well --I was very impressed. Apart from Complain, there aren't too many likable characters, but that is to be expected in a savage, primitive society where human lives are, as Hobbes would put it, "nasty, brutish, and short". Non-Stop may turn off an uninformed reader with its mysterious plot, but I feel that the information I have provided will make for a great reading experience with plenty of surprises left (I got the information myself from a description of the book before I started reading).
As in Zelazny's Lord of Light, we are thrust into a situation with little information as to what the overarching truth behind the plot is, and must figure it out ourselves. And, like Lord of Light (and Frank Herbert's Dune), this novel is probably even better upon a second reading. But the surprise and page-turning intrigue of my first read through it has convinced to tell you this: Non-Stop is an under- appreciated masterwork of the genre. I have already recommended it to someone in real life, and would urge fans of mystery, suspense, adventure and SF in general to check it out. Its an intelligent and fascinating piece of 1950s SF that has barely aged at all.

Way Station:

"It was a hopeless thing, he thought, this obsession of his to present the people of the Earth as good and reasonable. For in many ways they were neither good nor reasonable; perhaps because they had not as yet entirely grown up. They were smart and quick and at times compassionate and even understanding, but they failed lamentably in many other ways."
"It had been in that moment that he had realized the insanity of war, the futile gesture that in time became all but meaningless, the unreasoning rage that must be nursed long beyond the memory of the incident that had caused the rage, the sheer illogic that one man, by death of misery, might prove a right or uphold a principle. Somewhere, he thought, on the long backtrack of history, the human race had accepted an insanity for a principle and had persisted in it until [the] day that insanity-turned-principle stood ready to wipe out, if not the race itself, at least all of those things, both material and immaterial, that had been fashioned as symbols of humanity through many hard-won centuries."
"For each development produced, as side effects, so many other possibilities, so many other roads to travel, that with each step one took down any given road there were more paths to follow. There'd never be an end, he thought --no end to anything."
Clifford D. Simak's Way Station has a reputation as a pastoral novel, indeed a rare breed among works of science fiction. But it is in fact just that.
Way Station is the tale of a Civil War veteran named Enoch Wallace. He is over a century old, yet only looks around thirty. And the reason for this seemingly everlasting youth is quite interesting; Enoch has not found a fountain of youth or ingested a pill or discovered a sort of biological immortality for himself. Rather, his eternal youth is given to him, as a gift, from aliens. In return, Enoch serves as the station master for a galactic way station, housed inside his old farmhouse. The house appears to be a normal, Civil-War-era dwelling from the outside, but on the inside, there are technological wonders that allow aliens to teleport to and from Earth in an instant. Enoch is the only person on Earth who is aware of the existence of these aliens, and also the only person who has communicated with them.
Way Station is set in a rural, backwater area of Wisconsin, around the 1960s -- and each of these elements exacerbates a different side of the novel. In some scenes, we are given beautiful descriptions of rural life, scenes in which Enoch revels in the quiet exuberance of nature. But in other scenes, we are confronted with lasers, incredibly advanced technology, holograms, and strange aliens. The latter is the norm for science fiction, but the former is one of the reasons why Way Station is such an interesting novel.
The plot of the novel is built up slowly, but richly and warmly, as Simak maintains a pace like Enoch Wallace's own pace on his daily routine, taking care of detail. Enoch is being watched by federal agents, who have noticed something odd about this non-aging man and his strangely impenetrable house. Things to go awry when these watchers interfere with his property, digging up the grave of a dead alien friend of Enoch's. From this point, Way Station takes on a more frenetic pace, tearing through intense scenes, almost all of which examine the psychological toll that is inflicted upon Enoch by his travails. The Galactic Council considers getting rid of the station, an angry mob is formed to attack Enoch, an alien assassin bursts onto the scene with little notice, and a peace conference that might seal the nuclear destruction of Earth looms in the background.
At times, Enoch feels as if the weight of the world is on his shoulders, and in a sense, it is. He's a very likable character, a quiet, intelligent, principled man who wants to do what is right for the human race. He is quick to anger at times, but the reader is rarely given any reason not to like the man. Although the novel is mainly centered on Enoch, a deaf-mute girl named Lucy who lives near Enoch becomes an important part of the story as well. But Enoch is always the one we identify with: a good man who struggles with his own humanity and his role in earthly and galactic events.
The story's close is easily the most powerful and poignant section of the entire book. We are given an emotional scene and a moral lesson on the importance of progress --moving on in one's own life especially. Simak's writing throughout the novel is quite interesting. He certainly makes sure, in his many descriptions of the various alien species who travel through Enoch's station, to stress just how "alien" they are. Little can be understood of their sciences, philosophies, or even their senses, in many cases. There is some really interesting stuff in these attempts to aliens, their artifacts, and their ways (The Hazer's music box is quietly reminiscent of the mood organ in Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep). But, once again with the pastoral/slick SF contrast, Simak's descriptions of the beauty of nature often rival his descriptions of these aliens in the sense of wonder they instill, and also in the fact that they are known and can be understood.
I thoroughly enjoyed this warm, moral tale of Simak's. It adds a touch of fantasy and a tinge of the pastoral to SF, and I think that SF benefits greatly from this kind of down-to-earth, yet wondrous, imagery. I enjoyed it quite a bit, and it made me wonder why more SF isn't written like this. It's a nice break from constant, futuristic action, and it works very well. A deserved classic of science fiction with a feel-good ending to boot! Truly unique, and it ends with a sequence of scenes that rival the best that science fiction has to offer.