on September 4, 2003
Today I finished GATEWAY at 4am after staying up most of the night engrossed in Pohl's masterpiece. Yes, it's that good in my opinion. And quite frankly it devasted me. If you like your SF with emotion, feeling and fully 3 dimensionally characters, You will love this book. It will break your heart. Pohl leads you up to a point where you think things will be OK, then leads you careening over the edge. It really hit me hard, emotionally. Some people would say that this is melodrama, but I don't think so.
on May 7, 2004
"Gateway" tells the story of the ultimate futuristic gold rush. In the 21st century, an asteroid known as Gateway is discovered containing hundreds of ancient space ships, all of them with pre-programmed courses already set. The builders of the ships are referred to as Heechees, but very little is known of who they were, why they built the asteroid, or why the Heechee disappeared. Since no human knows how to steer the ships or predict the destinations, explorers have to get in the ships, activate the program, and then go where it takes them. Some discover vast wealth; many never return or come back dead because they have run out of food or air.
Robinette Broadhead becomes a Gateway prospector as one of the few avenues of advancement open to a poor person on Earth. This book tells of his trips interspersed with his conversations with a computerized therapist.
The setting is interesting, and the story is very effective. I would recommend this book highly.
This is the opener of a series which suffers from what might be called the "Dune" Effect: a terrific first book, with diminishing returns in subsequent volumes. Pohl ultimately does resolve the mystery of the Heechees, along with other questions not introduced in this book; unfortunately the answers are less interesting than the questions, and the story loses momentum well before the end of the series. I would recommend the sequel, "Beyond the Blue Event Horizon", but the final two volumes aren't up to snuff.
Bob Broadhead toils away at a boring labor job with little hope of anything better. When he wins the lottery, the prize money is enough for one-way passage to the asteroid Gateway. Its main attraction is a long-abandoned Heechee spaceport. The Heechee are long gone, but have left behind nearly a thousand spacecraft. Most can be made to work by twisting a few dials and pushing the launch button. But nobody knows how to control where they go. Bob joins the pool of prospectors who risk such trips, hoping to find high tech artifacts or new worlds.
The story is told as a series of therapy sessions between Bob and an artificial intelligence therapy program, alternating with flashbacks to Bob's earlier life and his three prospecting missions. The therapy discussions are sometimes painful and "Sigfrid" the therapist is both persistent and subtle. Even though his presence in therapy makes it clear that Bob survived all three missions, there are still surprises, puzzles, and interpersonal tensions. Although this is a complete story on its own, Bob's life story continues in Beyond the Blue Event Horizon,Heechee Rendezvous, and The Annals of the Heechee.
This is an enjoyable story and worthy of its good reputation as a science fiction classic. It has an early Heinlein feel to it. Some of this comes from the institutional setting of the Gatway asteroid and the corporation that runs it. Some comes from Bob's difficulties understanding women. At least Bob--unlike a number of Heinlein characters-- knows that he has issues and looks for help to deal with them.
It's a good read. And a good listen as an audio book. Enjoy!
on September 16, 2011
In 1976 Frederik Pohl, a New York author born in 1919, began a five-novel series about a fictional culture called the Heechee Saga. This novel, Gateway, is the first in the series, and like Walter Miller or Frank Herbert, he plunges us into a mysterious and exciting world of galactic adventure.
Once upon a time, Earth explorers reach Venus and discover tunnels beneath the planet's surface, vestiges of an alien technology and presence. No aliens, just those tunnels and some artifacts. One explorer finds a spaceship and manages to operate it, not realizing that it is automatically programmed to go to a specific destiny. That destiny turns out to be an asteroid in the Oort cloud and it is riddled with more tunnels and in fact is a space port made by aliens they are calling the Heechees. Hundreds of spaceships are waiting in the abandoned asteroid world of the Heechee. What to do?
An Earth consortium called the Gateway Corporation is formed and anybody wanting to pay a large fee and be trained are sent out on any one of the ships to see what happens. It's a big interstellar lottery because the ships, though they always automatically return to the Gateway station, don't always succeed and the interstellar "prospectors" sometimes perish or go crazy. Yet the rewards, if something is found to be of use (alien technology and artifacts, new worlds, new resources) are tremendous. Such is the world of Gateway, for starters.
One of these prospectors is Robinette Broadhead. He makes three voyages and survives, but apparently at a great mental cost. The novel cuts between the outward voyages and the station and Bob's psychological sessions with a computer counsellor. The idea of lost civilizations so alien and unknown is intriguing, especially when human adventurers grab hold of some of the opportunities that are offered. Practically nothing is offered in explanation of who the Heechee are or why they are no longer found or what are the workings of their spaceships. The Gateway daredevils (as the prospectors are thought of) simply make desperate bargains on each and every excursion on the mysterious voyages in each ship, either alone or with as many as five travelers going together. It makes for a great deal of expectation and tension.
This novel is a great page-turner and moves along nicely and as it is told in the first person (by Bob Broadhead) it is appealing in it's dramatic force. I liked it very much, and maybe will consider the rest of the novels in the Heechee saga: (Beyond the Blue Event Horizon (1980) Heechee rendezvous (1985) Annals of the Heechee (1987) The Gateway Trip (1990) The Boy Who Would Live Forever: A Novel of Gateway (2004).
on January 12, 2010
I had read about this novel on many "best of" lists, and had looked for it in bookstores for a long time. I eventually broke down and ordered it through Amazon, but from a different vendor. (I assumed it was in The States, but ended up being in England.) Let me say, I was delighted by the service. Even with ordering it about two weeks before the holidays, my book arrived in time for me to read it during my time off.
Now as to the book, and as per the title of the review, it wasn't exactly what I expected.
Whereas I was expecting the book to be about long, sustained outings in a Heechee ship by the main character, well.. it wasn't. Don't get me wrong, what's between the covers is still very entertaining and thought-provoking, but it just wasn't the story that I expected.
Based on that, and reviews that I've read about the subsequent books in the series, I may be less inclined to actively search them out.
Perhaps a second (or maybe third) reading will change my mind, but before I re-read this, I'd rather re-read and then re-read again "Use of Weapons" by Banks, "The Stars My Destination" by Bester, or "The Mote In God's Eye" by Niven and Pournelle.
"Gateway" will definitely be staying in my library, though.
(After all, my copy came "all the way from Merry Olde England".)
on April 16, 2004
Frederik Pohl has always been one of my favourite SF authors. As a double Hugo/Nebula winner for 1997's best novel, that makes it (at least nominally) one of the best of the best.
In the mid-21st century, tunnels and artifacts are discovered on Venus. This discovery leads in turn to the far more lucrative discovery of Gateway, an asteroid orbiting the sun outside the elliptical plane, tunnelled out and housing nearly 1000 spaceships abandoned half a million years ago by a mysterious race that humans have labelled the Heechee. These fully-functional ships are capable of faster-than-light travel and can hold one to five passengers. The problem is, no one knows how to operate the controls. Prospectors have spent their life's savings to travel to Gateway and travel in one of the ships to destinations unknown, hoping to make a major scientific or commercial discovery. Some do and hit it big. Most don't. Many don't come back.
The protagonist, millionaire Robinette Broadhead, is one of the ones who hit it big. We find out two important things about him at the beginning of Gateway. First, on one of his trips he made a major discovery worth 18 million dollars. Second, he is a very screwed-up man; we first meet him lying on a mat in the office of his digital shrink, Sigfrid.
Structurally, the novel's chapters alternate between Broadhead's sessions with Sigfrid, and flashbacks to Broadhead's experiences on Gateway. Unfortunately the book's structure is its major weakness. There is simply too much Sigfrid; Broadhead's appointments with the shrink could have been removed by half without harming the story. Besides, reading Freudian interpretation after interpretation of Broadhead's dreams and word choices starts to get monotonous.
It is the flashback sequences on Gateway and beyond that make this novel interesting by far. Pohl has done an excellent job of preserving the mystery of the Heechee. They are never revealed, even at the denouement of the story. Their presence is felt only through the tunnels of Gateway, the rare half-million-year-old artifacts they left behind, and their still-functional spaceships with their cryptic controls, the function of which can only be guessed at (more often than not wrongly). Interspersed throughout the book are page-long sidebars containing snapshots of life on or about Gateway: classified ads, trip reports, academic lectures. In addition to helping create a general impression of the risks of being a Gateway prospector, some of these little diversions provide clues to how the story ends, and are worth reading carefully.
If you're a hard SF fan and haven't picked up Gateway yet, you owe it to yourself. Despite its literary flaws, it's on my list of must-read SF novels.
on April 14, 2004
I'm always reluctant to start a new series of Sci-fi novels because of the usual let-down that ensues after a fine beginning novel. I've read the sequel, "Beyond the Blue Event Horizon," and I was thoroughly disappointed. It took me over a year to even bother to start the third book, which I am reading now and so far it doesn't look too promising, either. So, what I'm trying to say, in so many run-on sentences, is to read the first book only. It has a great mystery at its heart, and does what all masterful Sci-fi does best: raises more questions than it answers. There are a few down moments, but they are forgivable given that I was there with the characters pondering the mysteries of the Heechee and subconciously fearful for their well-being when they do travel to the stars. Some never return; some return with their entrails splattered all over the inside of the ship. It's a dice game with the craft of the Heechee. But those who return with artifacts and knowledge are likely to become rich beyond their wildest dreams. For some reason, much like Dan Simmons' "Endymion," I keep having memory flashes from this novel. I was there in spirit. The great Sci-fi novels take you on a journey into the unknown and sometimes beyond. This is one of those novels.
on June 20, 2003
This book has some merits. Pohl paints a convincing miners' world by giving us a sense of its grit and stench. The lives of the miners are also handled well. The cramped seediness of their environment stunts their souls and this is crafted both believably and professionally. And, in spite of portraying Twenty-Third (?) century scientists as being unrealistically dense, the mystery of the Heechee is equal to any other creation in science fiction.
However, for all its strengths, this book didn't engage me. I found the angst of the main character both affected and contrived. And while his emotional self-flagellation was not central to the workings of the story, it kept distracting me from the more important elements. Consequently, I couldn't enjoy the story because of my resentment towards the book's heavy-handed artifice.
In this book, Pohl is so intent on teasing a multi-dimensional character out of a uni-dimensional kernel that he overindulges in Freudian excess. The main character is a parody of psychological trauma. His self-consuming guilt is advertised to the reader with all the subtlety of a highway billboard. Just as blatantly, our hero goes through unbelievable mental contortions to evade his real feelings. What we get is not a characterization we can identify with, but a painfully simplistic parody of an emotional breakdown. If despair and survivor guilt were really this superficial, psychiatrists would all be out of work.
Many readers unused to science fiction complain about the genre's tendency towards simple characters. This book illustrates why simple characters in the service of a good story are preferable to "complex" characters purchased with pretension. Grandmasters like Clarke, Asimov and Heinlein rarely created multifaceted or engaging characters. Yet some of these works proved to be classics because characterization was unimportant to the story. Here, a great story is felled by a misguided attempt to inject "dimension" into the hero when a simpler hero would have allowed the complexity of his world to take centre stage.
If you can get past the Hollywood angst, this book is actually a pretty good read with interesting ideas, settings and storyline. But it could have passed from "good" to "great", and it's a shame that its excesses prevent it from achieving something grander.
on March 28, 2003
Let's see what I can remember...
There were a lot of good things about this book. The narrator, Robinette Broadhead, was fun to read about. Some authors can't do first-person narratives very well, but here Pohl creates a great character just by having him speak. Rob (a young man with a feminine name that he despises) has a lot of energy and emotion, and his fiery narration really carries the book.
The narrative jumps back and forth in time, from Rob's first visit to Gateway station, an abandoned alien base on an asteroid, to when Rob is older and undergoing psychotherapy. The scenes with his computer therapist, Siegfried von Shrink, are particularly entertaining. This also ups the suspense throughout the book: because of Rob's conversations with his shrink, you know something is going to happen, but you don't know what.
The Heechee - the alien race that built Gateway station - are also fascinating. We never see them (at least, not until the end of the sequel), but we're given little tidbits of their culture and physiology. The sense of mystery surrounding them is immense.
Pohl does a fantastic job creating the mood on Gateway station. Whenever a character ventures out on one of the autopiloted Heechee ships, there an overwhelming sense of anxiety and fear, because no one knows whether the ship will come back or not, or what will happen to the crew. Some of these ships vanish without a trace, others return just fine; some come back with the crew dead inside. There's always the chance, however, that at the other end of one of these trips, the crew will find a habitable planet, or something that could make them rich.
The boredom between trips is also entertaining somehow. Robinette is so scared of disappearing in a Heechee ship, he spends a lot of the book being a typical teenager: he has sex, smokes pot, etc. There are lots of characters on Gateway, and most of them are fleshed out pretty well. Some of the twists of sexuality undergone by Rob towards the end of the book are cool too.
The future of this book is believably detailed with realistic science and social speculation, told and explained by a narrator who actually lives there. This book is very high on my list of favorites; too bad the sequels weren't quite as magnetic.
on March 9, 2003
The premise of Gateway is simple enough - humankind has discovered a space station abandoned 500 000 years ago by a technologically superior race (the "Heechee"). Part of the station's equipment is a group of space shuttles with faster-than-light drives. The shuttles have a capacity of 1 to 5 humans. No one can figure out most of the technology in them, but through trial and error, they learn that if a certain panel glows a certain intensity, the ship will make a round trip to.... somewhere. The truly adventurous (or desperate) sign up to ride the vessels out and back and see if they go anywhere of use (i.e. an old Heechee colony that contains some more of the wonderful Heechee artfacts/technology). Of course, because nothing is known of the destination, and because the Heechee were known to be scientists, sometimes the destinations are close to black holes, inside recent supernovae (that were stars 500 000 years ago), or the trip is too long for the occupants' food/water supplies.
The central character is Bob Broadhead, a poor miner who won enough money in a lottery for a ticket to Gateway. Unfortunately for him, he's a self-professed coward - afraid to go back to the mines, yet afraid to try his luck in the Heechee ships. It turns out that the story is more of a character study - we first meet Broadhead in his psychiatrist's office, where he's fabulously wealthy after three trips in the Heechee ships, but with deep emotional problems. The story intercuts between therapy sessions and a first-person account of the actual events leading up to his fame and pychosis.
The strength of the book is the way it maintains suspense and interest - we know what is going to happen to Broadhead, but not how, and not the fates of his friends and associates. It is well established that many flights are "successful" only in the fact that at least one of the crew returns alive. The therapy sessions and the story narrative are effortlessly intertwined and build up a rich weave of narrative that is difficult to put down.
The future world is plausible, and written in a fashion where little is explained explicitly, but where the reader can fully understand based on context. There is very little science because the inner workings of the Heechee artifacts are not understood. The book's weakness is, in fact, its attempts to explain some of the technologies (the explanations of Heechee "metal" are laughable). However, this is a fully realised futuristic society, self-contained and a logical extension of pre-AIDS sexual mores... That the psychoanalysis is almost excusively Freudian is forgivable because it fits perfectly well with the attitudes and morals of the society.
It is the first book of a series, although completely self-contained. It piqued my interest enough that I will be on the lookout for the second book in the series, and is a worthy dounle-winner of science fiction's top prizes, the Hugo and Nebula.