Gateway by Pohl, Frederik, 1976

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One of the most under-rated series, and all but unknown to all but regular consumers of SF, is Frederik Pohl's Heechee sequence which started in 1977 with the novel Gateway. I personally love Pohl's writing style, and I am somewhat dismayed that I never see his books on the new bookstore shelves anymore. I don't understand why, considering that he has written several volumes which have won multiple awards, including this one, Man Plus, The Space Merchants (co-authored with C.M. Cornbluth), and many others, including one of my favorite novellas, Stopping at Slowyear. This book is a very well written, sarcastic look at the swings and meanings of luck. It is also a deterministic examination of psychological pathology which views psychotherapy quite favorably.

Gateway is the story of a man named Robinette Broadhead, a destitute bacteria farmer from Wyoming who mines shale stone for petroleum which is used as a substrate for food production in an impoverished, energy poor and overcrowded Earth of the future. Broadhead eventually got lucky and hit the lottery, and won enough cash for a trip to an asteroid called Gateway, where one can seek fortune and fame. Gateway is an alien artifact, left by a species we call the Heechee. On Gateway is a warren-like system of tunnels and approximately 1000 dormant spacecraft. Many of the spacecraft were still operable. However, because the Heechee technology was way beyond our understanding, we cannot maintain the craft, fuel them, or even steer them. All we figure out is that a navigation machine can be accessed to change courses before departure, and a button can be pressed to send the ship into a Heechee wormhole. Other than that, humans are just along for the ride. At a significant number of destinations death and destruction await the unwitting occupants of the ships. At others, nothing remains, not even a planet. But at a very few technology awaits discovery that could make the "prospectors" who occupy the ships extremely wealthy on their return.

At its heart Gateway is a very detailed character sketch, that also happens to have all the bells and whistles of a full-blown novel. Broadhead is a very well crafted character, and Pohl leaves really no stone unturned in describing how he got to be the neurotic, indecisive and guilt-ridden mess he is. The book's chapters alternate between the major action of the plot, and character development of Broadhead through fly-on-the wall scenes with his hologram psychotherapist, whom Broadhead irreverently calls Sigfrid von Shrink. Pohl uses the psychotherapy scenes to frame the action in the main-sequence chapters, and complements this foreshadowing with dozens of carefully placed extra-textual items in Dos Passos style, such as newspaper classified ads from the Gateway paper, poems by Earthlings to the Heechee, transcripts of Broadhead's conversations with Sigfrid, Gateway Corporation's summaries of missions, financial statements and many, many more. Everything in this book really clicks very well to give us a deeply meaningful picture of Broadhead, who is hung up on an Oedipal complex after the early death of his mother. He illogically holds personal blame for her death, and lacks the ability in adulthood to make choices. Broadhead also has a bit of sexuality confusion, but that really is not the germ of his pathology. He manages to hook up with a woman on Gateway named Klara who suffers from the same inability to choose, but for different reasons. Broadhead and Klara eventually fall in love, and while away the time trying to figure out the system and choose a ship and destination that will guarantee success, survival and wealth. Unfortunately that was all but impossible. As a result the couple wind up making decisions out of desperation, which of course gives them as much luck as they have had in the rest of their lives. In the end Broadhead and Klara get into a risky mission that in the end makes Broadhead extremely wealthy, but just drives his pathology deeper than ever before into his psyche. He returns to Earth to screw and drink away the rest of his life, which is guaranteed to be extremely long due to his ability to purchase medical coverage, and thus basically immortality.

I personally have not read the entire Heechee sequence, but I want to. If you are interested in tightly written, interpersonal stories that really do pack a wallop in the plot department, then this may be a good selection. But its also a full-on SF adventure story that deserves a place next to the best. Oh, and its novella length, so you can wipe it out on a long Saturday or after five or six good long dumps. Five out of five stars.

Copyright 2007, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 5 star(s)


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