He has been called a “pastoral” writer who, like Rod Serling of the Twilight Zone, idolized the small towns of rural America. But unlike Serling, Simak was optimistic and kind about the human race. We are not evil, but immature. We like to shoot, not because we want to kill, but because we love to protect. We have faith, not because we are superstitious, but because we can sense a greater presence in the universe. And in this story about Enoch Wallace, a Civil War soldier who takes over an alien way station in rural Iowa and keeps it running for a century and a half: “A million years ago there had been no river here and in a million years to come there might be no river – but in a million years from now there would be, if not Man, at least a caring thing. And that was the secret of the universe, Enoch told himself – a thing that went on caring.”
That deep kindness reminds me of both Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time and Edgar Pangborn’s A Mirror for Observers. Of course, this sentimentality can be as ignorant of reality as Heinlein’s Competent Man, but still, I have great affection for kindness. I can forgive its failings. My real quibble with this 1963 story was its pacing. I found it hard to pick up and keep reading. Despite the imaginative view of the galaxy and chilling dangers (such as the Stupidity Plague), it meandered laconically (like a country road) and I often lost track of what was happening. There were things I missed or didn’t understand, which played important roles in the end. That undercut the impact of the end.
Simak’s world-view was summed up on a headstone: “Here lies one from a distant star, but the soil is not alien to him, for in death he belongs to the universe.” This imparting of a solid belief of how we relate to our world, or worlds, seems like a weighty tool in a writer’s bag. The other lesson of this story: improper pacing can steal a story’s thunder.