Review: Gateway by Frederik Pohl

“Anyway, that’s what life is, just one learning experience after another, and when you’re through with all the learning experiences you graduate and what you get for a diploma is, you die.”
~Frederik Pohl, Gateway

Plot summary

“Gateway opened on all the wealth of the Universe… and on reaches of unimaginable horror. When prospector Bob Broadhead went out to Gateway on the Heechee spacecraft, he decided he would know which was the right mission to make him his fortune.

Cover for Frederik Pohl's Gateway. Photo: RA.AZ (CC BY 2.0)
Cover for Frederik Pohl’s Gateway. Photo: RA.AZ (CC BY 2.0)

Three missions later, now famous and permanently rich, Robinette Broadhead has to face what happened to him and what he is…in a journey into himself as perilous and even more horrifying than the nightmare trip through the interstellar void that he drove himself to take.” More on Goodreads

“What were we doing here? Traveling hundreds or thousands of light-years, to break our hearts?”
~Frederik Pohl, Gateway

On Frederik Pohl

“Frederik George Pohl, Jr. was an American science fiction writer, editor and fan, with a career spanning over seventy years. From about 1959 until 1969, Pohl edited Galaxy magazine and its sister magazine IF winning the Hugo for IF three years in a row. His writing also won him three Hugos and multiple Nebula Awards. He became a Nebula Grand Master in 1993.” More on Goodreads

Key concepts
  • Regret of existence
  • False betrayal
  • Mystery of a past civilization
    Review

    We move on from Crash published in 1973 to another 1970’s novel, Gateway. The latter is the first novel in the Heechee Saga, and to be honest, I should never have read the second novel in the series, Beyond the Blue Event Horizon. I really liked Gateway, I pretty much think it’s one of the best science fiction novels I’ve ever read, but the atmosphere so important in the first goes missing in the second novel.

Cover for The Annals of the Heechee. Photo: CHRIS DRUMM (CC BY 2.0)
Cover for The Annals of the Heechee. Photo: CHRIS DRUMM (CC BY 2.0)

What is marvelous about Gateway is the level of human sadness and emptiness it captures in a world where little matters or makes a difference. The novel is an emotional one and the characters are somewhat depressed or at least sad about different issues.

Under Key concepts, I marked ‘regret of existence’, and that sums up the novel. It shows the inner troubles of a person having to make a difficult choice that would haunt the person no matter what the outcome is.

And what about the Heechee? The Heechee were a fictional alien race in the Milky Way Galaxy a long time before humans came to inhabit Earth. The term ‘Heechee’ is a human invention, and ‘Gateway’ refers to a space station formerly occupied by the said mysterious alien race humans dubbed the Heechee.

“Gateway is a rock about ten kilometers wide at its longest point, honeycombed with tunnels and riddled on the outside with bumps and holes. The bumps are the hulls of Heechee ships. The holes are where Heechee ships used to be. Human scientists have figured out how to make the ships run — sort of. Other humans, usually poor ones, spend their life savings to become prospectors, and fly Heechee ships out of Gateway on preset courses to they-know-not-where, hoping to strike it rich finding traces of the alien civilization. About a third of the ships come back. And the people inside aren’t always alive when they do.” (Wimmer 2010)

There are a lot of hopeless elements in the novel. But I guess that’s part of the charm: it is a way to describe the human society in a fictional future where making ends meet is not so glory and even dangerous at times.

So, partly the novel describes the mysteries of the Heechee as this alien race left all kinds of devices around for others to find, and at least humans did find some. The devices are to help to identity what kind of race the Heechee were and how they operated.

In a sense, Gateway bears resemblance to Roadside Picnic by the Strugatsky brothers. In both novels, the aliens are not met eye to eye but humans occupy themselves with the various objects and artifacts the alien race left behind. Frederik Pohl actually did write Chernobyl (1987), a dramatization on the nuclear disaster in 1986.

The other interesting part about the novel are the chapters with the therapy sessions. As Wimmer (2010) puts it, “[e]very other chapter describes one of [Bob’s] therapy sessions with an AI he calls Sigfrid von Shrink. Now, Bob is a complicated guy, beyond just being a dude with a girl’s name: He’s in therapy of his own accord, he attends his sessions reliably, and yet he resents Sigfrid and seems determined to avoid actually digging into the issues that are causing him so much unhappiness.”

The structure is thus a melodic journey into mixed chronology, into flashbacks. It is about human desires, sadness of how things do in general work out in human societies and on top of that, a remarkably mystery left behind by an alien race. The poor humans try their best to make sense into the complexities of life in the presence and before. It is the understanding part that tires them out and leaves them empty inside.

Gateway is one of the best science fiction novels I’ve come across with. It is sad but there is beauty in the description of emotional emptiness and mental challenges. There are no heroes in Gateway, only complicated individuals trying to make 2 + 2 make 4, but always ending up with 3 or 5.

“They were two lovely choices. One of them meant giving up every chance of a decent life forever…and the other one scared me out of my mind.” ~Frederik Pohl, Gateway

More information
– Sam Jordison: Back to the Hugos: Gateway by Frederik Pohl, published in the Guardian on 19 January 2012, link retrieved on 10 December 2016
– Josh Wimmer: Gateway by Frederik Pohl: The most dreadful of Hugo winners, published in io9 on 9 October 2010, link retrieved on 10 December 2016

Other novels and stories by Pohl
  • The Space Merchants novels (1952-1981)
  • Gladiator-at-Law (1955)
  • The Tunnel Under the World (1955)
  • The Age of the Pussyfoot (1969)
  • Man Plus (1976)
  • Heechee Saga (1977-1990), Gateway is the first novel in the series
  • Jem (1979)
  • The Cool War (1981)
  • Starburst (1982)
  • Black Star Rising (1985)
  • The Coming of the Quantum Cats (1986)
  • Chernobyl (1987)
  • The World at the End of Time (1990)
  • Mars Plus (1994)
  • The Other End of Time (1996)

“You asked me, ‘Do you call this living?” And I answer: Yes, it is exactly what I call living. And in my best hypothetical sense, I envy it very much.”
~Frederik Pohl, Gateway 

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Author: fictivestina

Hey, I'm a native Helsinkian but a cosmopolitan at heart :) Outdoors, reading, writing and cultural attractions are my passion. Hiking in Lapland cannot be competed with!

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