The Hugo (& Nebula) Awards: Frederik Pohl’s Gateway (1977)

Rockets soaring across the sky, lasers blasting indiscriminately, aliens with names like Ubuntu and Fnord, humanoid robots with joints going kzzt!-bzzt!: The Golden Age of Sci-Fi has aged itself into the ground by 2017, its future technology nothing more than magic with a metallic sheen, its important social messages sexist diatribes or naive Libertarian fantasies.

Pohl_Gateway_Cover.pngPohl’s Gateway doesn’t fit this mold. Instead of fanciful descriptions of human ingenunity, of rockets crossing the stars to spread its manly empire, Gateway offers no explanation for its technology — and doesn’t care. In this future, Earth — (and Mars, and Venus) — is an overpopulated mess of food shortages and class struggles, well on its way to self-destruction. One possible saving grace is the Gateway of the title — a massive alien space station floating in space somewhere this side of Jupiter. Gateway is found dead-empty, even cleaned to a spotless sheen, but for thousands of ships docked and ready to move with individual matrices of pre-set, indecipherable coordinates. (Think Mass Effect’s Citadel and titular relay system. The Heechee books were a huge inspiration for the BioWare RPG series, and my adoration of that mythology, however unoriginal, is partly what drew me to Gateway.)

Of the original inhabitants — named, cornily, golden-age style, the ‘Heechee’ — there is no sign.

We have no idea how any of this technology works, and most of humanity, including our narrator, doesn’t care. Gateway represents one thing and one thing only for the struggling billions back home: Fortune. A way out of poverty and struggle and hunger.

Pohl_Gateway_Art.jpgThe nations of the worlds have coordinated an effort to find and study alien artifacts: Under the banner of ‘the Corporation,’ prospectors are invited to Gateway to risk their lives above the myriad of alien ships. These ships are mysterious, cramped, and utterly dangerous. Prospectors go in with no idea of their trips’ destinations or if they’ll come back alive. Many suffer extreme conditions, or simply run out of supplies and starve to death. Access to first aid is almost nonexistent on their trips — and, ultimately, most don’t return alive. If, however, a prospector finds new or important alien artifacts or abandoned facilities, they rake in millions and are set for life.

Gateway is a classic for not offering any solutions to its mysteries. Robinette ‘Bob’ Broadhead, our prospector hero, doesn’t care and never will: He’s only on this ship to make his fortune and escape his shitty life. The Heechee remain as mysterious at the end as they were at the start, except for what comes to the reader’s imagination.

Interspersed in Bob’s prospecting are present-day meetings with an AI psychotherapist. Bob bitches and complains and tricks his AI therapist, who calmly refers Bob repeatedly back to his dreams, and discussing his sexual problems and insecurities. These parts are clever and well-written — their inclusion makes the novel all the better — but also make up the most dated parts of the novel. The psychology on display is pure Freud, which, even at the time of writing (1977), was losing its grip on reality. Most of the psychoanalysis in these sections is bogus nonsense, then, but still make for an entertaining story. (The fixation and casual regard of sexuality and drugs are refreshing, to some degree; they don’t quite hit hippie naivete.)

Pohl_Gateway_Author.jpg
It was after Pohl’s fingers soared off into space, seeking the comfort of a cold, dead void, that Pohl retired from writing. (dramatization)

I expected ’70s sci-fi cheese, full of lasers and magical technology, but what I got was a working-man’s mystery, appealing to hard and soft sci-fi geeks alike. That Gateway never holds the readers hand, and, in fact, doesn’t give a flying fuck that it doesn’t, make this novel a classic even 40 years later.

I hear the sequels don’t hold the same spark as Gateway, but I know I’ll be reading them and more from Frederik Pohl.

★★★★☆

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