Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Review: Gateway, by Frederik Pohl

Gateway by Frederik Pohl
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press, Galaxy Science Fiction 1977
Book 1 of the Heechee Saga
Awards Won: Hugo, Nebula, Campbell, Locus SF
Sub-genres: Space Exploration, Hard SF
The Book:
I have known the name of Frederik Pohl, as a well-loved Science Fiction author, for most of my life. It is only when I picked up this book that I realized I’d somehow never gotten around to reading any of his books.  I’m glad I started with Gateway,  an SF classic, showered with awards, and the first novel in his Heechee saga.  Despite kicking off a series, Gateway is a self-contained story that is very effective as a stand alone novel.
The eponymous Gateway is a hollowed-out asteroid that had been used as a base by the long-vanished alien species called the Heechee.  When humans discovered this asteroid, all that was left within it were a number of one, three and five-man spaceships that could travel faster than light.  Humans have no real understanding of the Heechee vessels, but are able to manipulate the controls well enough to send them on allez-retour trips to predetermined destinations. 
The only problem is that there is no way to determine what these destinations will be, or how long it will take to get to them.  A corporation offers large rewards to successful “prospectors”, those who discover useful artifacts, technology, or locations.   Though the potential rewards are huge, so are the risks. Many of the prospectors never return, or return only as mangled corpses.
Robinette Broadhead buys a one-way ticket out to Gateway to seek his fortune.  At Gateway, which ends up being something like a small university town, Bob makes friends, attends parties, and learns survival skills to help him on his eventual risky journeys.  He also meets a woman he grows to love, Gelle-Klara Moynlin.
A second narrative thread weaves through the first, the post-Gateway therapy sessions of Bob Broadhead with the robot psychologist he dubs Sigfrid von Shrink.  In these sessions, we see a traumatized Bob attempting to come to terms with what he has experienced.  He attends the therapy sessions willingly, but can’t help struggling against the psychiatrist as he is inexorably led back towards his central trauma.
My Thoughts:
I enjoyed this book immensely.  The alien asteroid and the space-exploration were interesting, but the human story was what really hooked me.  The characters in this book weren’t your general cardboard cutout action stars.  They were people who cowered in an asteroid, terrified to take the space flight that had a greater than 50% chance of killing them.  They were people who sometimes loved each other, and sometimes hurt each other.   Even on their space voyages, it described how they gradually grew sick of each other and sought refuge in their hobbies.  While the story focused on Robinette Broadhead, and to a lesser extent Klara and Sigfrid von Shrink, there was a full cast of interesting minor characters living their lives in the background.
While Robinette was a deeply flawed protagonist, I became very emotionally invested in his life story.  One reason Bob was such a fascinating character to me was that no one ever excused his actions or thoughts.  When his personal flaws manifested in speech or action, it was not explained away by the author, the other characters, or society.  I do not feel like Bob was a bad person.   He was just very human, and he had to eventually come to terms with himself. 
As for the plot, this is technically a Big Dumb Object story.  I’m aware that this is a well-worn trope, and that alone might make the book seem rather dated to some people.  I guess I haven’t read too many BDO stories, so it didn’t bother me.  I have also heard some criticism that the corporate management of Gateway felt rather out-of-touch with modern day.  I guess one would expect more business competition, political maneuvering, involvement of governments and so forth.  I didn’t think this detracted from the story, since it was more focused on the daily lives of lowly prospectors than on politics or economics.
I appreciated the treatment of gender and sexuality in the book, as well.  Robinette was mildly homophobic and sexist, but his personal attitudes were never supported by the story.  Men and women seemed to be pretty equal on Gateway, and there were many competent female prospectors.  Though the story focused on a heterosexual couple, other sexualities were common and generally treated as nothing out of the ordinary. Through interactions, Bob was kind of forced to accept that sexuality was just one small part of an individual’s personality. 

My Rating: 5/5
I admit that parts of this book felt a little bit dated, but I felt that the story more than made up for this.  Robinette Broadhead was the kind of unlikeable protagonist that I really enjoy! The story of Gateway feels complete, but I still look forward to reading more of Frederik Pohl’s Heechee Saga!

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