Reading recommendation: Gateway by Frederik Pohl

gateway.pngFROM JASON’S SAGGING BOOKSHELF — I keep telling Andrew that Rocky isn’t about boxing, Cube isn’t about the traps, and Top Gun isn’t about jets. They are about the characters’ inner conflicts, and the rest is just backdrop.

Just to be clear, though, Jurassic Park is about dinosaurs. (Clever girl!)

Frederik Pohl’s 1977 science fiction novel Gateway isn’t really about space exploration. It’s about psychological scars. The mystery of the alien race known as the Heechee, the plight of Earth’s starving masses, and the strange faster-than-light ships used to explore the universe are just there to shed light on our hero’s repressed memories.

The book takes place largely in three locations — the most important is a psychologist’s office. That the analyst just happens to be a computer named somewhat surreptitiously after Sigmund Freud is just a bonus.

Other parts of the book take place on a space station built by aliens in the shell of a hollowed-out asteroid, and aboard the cramped space pods the aliens docked there thousands of years ago.

With the asteroid (called Gateway) as a launch point, humans are using the spacecraft to explore the universe. The only problems are that we don’t know how the ships work, how to choose a destination, and the chances of coming back from a mission are 50-50.

Pohl gets my respect for that brave decision. In most sci-fi novels, Man is in control of his destiny, roaming the galaxy at will. In Gateway, Earth has become overcrowded and the only way to survive is to take to the stars. Manifest destiny is absolutely necessary, but Man can’t decide how it happens. The passengers who take to the alien spacecraft are helpless and have no influence over their fates.

The real action, though, takes place in the murky confines of Bob Broadhead’s mind — except for one crucial and plot-defining scene against the backdrop of a black hole.

I have nothing but good comments for Gateway. Pohl creates a full and believable universe in a relatively short read, and none of it is clumsily executed. He takes a cue from Jaws and refuses to reveal the elusive Heechee aliens to us (though he does go there in later books). We are left ignorant of their origins, intentions, or whereabouts — and that means it’s much easier to identify with the floundering human explorers.

With that huge mystery unsolved, we’re left only with empirical clues about the Heechee. We know they were here in our solar system, we know that they left advanced equipment behind, we know they were roughly bipedal but physiologically much different than humans, and we know that they are long gone.

That gives Pohl a certain amount of freedom. Rather than have to focus on exotic descriptions of the aliens, their language, and their movements, he can spend his time examining Bob’s choices. Will he brave the dangers of space travel? Will his relationships survive? Does he grow? Why does he have such a strange mental block about very specific memories? What happened out there in the inky black of space, anyway?

The best thing about Gateway by far, though is a gimmick. Interspersed throughout the book are pages that have nothing to do with the story; instead, they are full of excerpts from this future world: Classified ads, instructions on how to use the space station’s showers, safety rules for aboard ships, bits of BASIC-like programming lines from the psychology computer, reports about previous missions, and transcripts from lectures about astrophysics.

Example: MISSION REPORT

Vessel 3-31, Voyage 08D27. Crew C. Pitrin, N. Ginza, J. Krabbe.

Transit time out 19 days 4 hours. Position uncertain, vicinity (+-2 l.y.) Zeta Tauri.

Summary: Emerged in transpolar orbit planet .88 Earth radius at .4 A.U. Planet possessed 3 detected small satellites. Six other planets inferred by computer logic. Primary K7.

*Landing made. This planet has evidently gone through a warming period. There are no ice caps, and the present shorelines do not appear very old. No detected signs of habitation. No intelligent life.

*Finescreen scanning located what appeared to be a Heechee rendezvous station in our orbit. We approached it. It was intact. In forcing an entrance it exploded and N. Ginza was killed. Our vessel was damaged and we returned, J. Krabbe dying en route. No artifacts were secured. Biotic samples from planet destroyed in damage to vessel.

These scraps don’t do anything for the plot but they give a very mundane, very intimate look at the sociological conditions of Pohl’s made-up future. It’s one of those perfect touches that balances the hard science and the lofty concept, like Aunt Beru’s blue milk in Star Wars. Here’s another example that gives Gateway credibility:

CLASSIFIEDS

AREN’T THERE any English-speaking nonsmokers on Gateway to fill out our crew? Maybe you want to shorten your life (and our life support reserves!)but we two don’t. 88-775.

WE DEMAND prospector representation on Gateway Corporation Board! Mass meeting tomorrow 1300 Level Babe. Everyone welcome!

SELECT FLIGHTS tested, whole-person way from your dreams. 32–page book tells how, $10. Consultations, $25. 88-139.

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One Response to Reading recommendation: Gateway by Frederik Pohl

  1. HMTKSteve says:

    I started reading the HeeChee books back in the early 80’s. I think the first two or three boks were out by then.

    You are right about it being about the characters. Unlike some forms of Sci-Fi (Star Trek) the technology of the future is only used as a back drop for the interaction of the characters. Oh yes, Bob is one royaly fucked-up person!

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