Pohl, Frederik. Gateway.

NY: Ballantine, 1977.

Fred Pohl is, without any argument, one of the half-dozen most important, most creative, most productive, most readable science fiction authors since World War II — though he was editing pulps even before that. The man is over 90 now, and still working. But at the time of its publication, he said himself that he thought Gateway was his best work to date. Everyone else agreed, and he won not only the Hugo and the Nebula, but also the Campbell Award. (Later, he even won the National Book Award for Jem — a rare feat for an sf novel.) And why is this such a great book?

Because you can’t read a single page of it without coming across a new idea in speculative science, or a new, mind-blowing comment about what we might find in our future, or a new insight in human psychology. The set-up is really very simple: When we, who live on the overcrowded, starving Earth, first make it to Venus, we discover underground constructions of thoroughly alien origin, and with alien artifacts, some of which can be understood sufficiently to be replicated and integrated into our own technology. But no aliens themselves (the discoverers call them “Heechee” for lack of a better name); they’ve been gone a very long time. But most important, there is also a ship, with what turns out to be a pre-programmed course embedded in its mysterious innards. And that leads to the discovery of Gateway, a converted asteroid or comet-heart, in ecliptic orbit. And Gateway is Grand Central Station when it comes to alien FTL ships. But since no one knows how to read any of the controls, or how to change them successfully, anybody venturing out in one faces long odds against returning. And many don’t. Some ships never come back, or they return with deceased prospectors in them. But, of course, people keep trying. Because, every so often, a successful visit to (and return from) a particular ship’s unknown destination will result in incredible discoveries and enormous wealth for the lucky prospector, via the international cartel that now manages Gateway. At this point, we meet Robin Broadhead, escapee from a dreary life in the Wyoming food mines via a lottery ticket that gets him to Gateway as a potential adventurer. If he can only overcome his paralyzing fear of launching himself into the unknown. But because the narrative shifts from Robin’s past on Gateway, trying to balance his fear against his diminishing capital (you can’t stay there after your air-tax has run out, you understand) to his present, a couple of decades later on Earth as a tycoon, we know he managed it, that he struck it rich. And we also discover, through his sessions with an automated psychoanalyst, just what that luck has cost him. And it’s his last, only partly successful trip as part of an experimental pairing of two five-man Heechee ships, that the whole story is leading up to, and which has defined the rest of his life, because it meant the semi-death of the woman he had come to love (as well as the rest of the crew). Robin is a very well-developed character, as are all the supporting players, even those who don’t get a lot of stage time. Pohl makes the reader care about what happens to them. And he makes some of us wish we were living in that future, with all its problems, just because it’s so fascinating. His writing is moving and the plot is gripping. It’s a book to be re-read and enjoyed anew every decade or so.

Published in: on 20 October 2010 at 7:31 am  Leave a Comment  
Tags: ,

The URI to TrackBack this entry is:

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: