Gateway – Frederik Pohl (1976)
Structurally, ‘Gateway’ is composed of a series of psychiatric sessions, punctuated by the story, told in flashback, of the patient, and the events which made him rich and brought him to the psychiatrist’s couch.
The book is also peppered with random downloads from various sources (the AI psychiatrist’s record of the session; postings from the Gateway notice board; letters to the press; transcripts of training lectures etc) which add depth to the narrative while making oblique comments about the society of the time.
Our protagonist, Robinette Broadhead, makes an interesting hero. It’s a tribute to Pohl’s powers of characterisation that Broadhead – essentially what one may describe as a coward, and who at one point beats up his girlfriend – comes across as a likeable and sensitive character.
Gateway is an asteroid, somewhere within the orbit of Venus, which, millions of years ago, was a base for the long-vanished HeeChee. The HeeChee left behind several hundred (still-working) ships, each capable of automatic return trips to a series of preset – but unknown – destinations.
Some prospectors returned with valuable HeeChee artefacts or scientific data. Others returned dead. Some never returned at all.
Broadhead gambles his lottery-won fortune to buy a trip to Gateway and the Russian Roulette chance of flying to an unknown destination to discover something that would make him rich enough to solve all his problems.
Obviously since we know Broadhead did become rich and is now in therapy (under the treatment of Sigfrid, the AI psychiatrist) his problems were not solved.
The beauty of this book is that we are left – as we generally are in life – with unresolved issues.
Had there been no sequels, this would undoubtedly stand as a masterpiece, but the three ensuing books, in which the mysterious HeeChee are discovered, and their disappearance explained, erode the mystery which is such a valuable part of this novel.
As a stand-alone novel, it leaves one with that poignant feeling that the book is going on without you somewhere.
Pohl is the nearest thing we have to an American Socialist SF writer. Where other writers would concentrate on the militaristic or larger social consequences of an overpopulated world with few resources, Pohl concentrates on the issues of individuals, and those individuals who exist on the lowest social level (Broadhead grew up in one of the communities which harvest the specialised protein fungi which grows in the shale of one of earth’s many food-mines. Wealth seems the only way to escape the poverty trap.)
Pohl’s society is also a liberal society, and it’s nice to see that, in the mid-seventies, he could include gay characters who weren’t defined solely by their sexuality. Broadhead himself has a sexual experience with a male crewmate which is discussed firstly during a therapy session. Broadhead first avoids the subject, then dismisses it as situational homosexuality, in that he was frustrated on a long trip with an all-male crew.
Later, this episode is told in flashback via first-person narrative, in which Broadhead describes it in fonder, even more romantic terms.
Every character seems fully rounded, and they are skilfully presented as people with flaws, with faults, and no one lives happily ever after. It is not, however, bleak. It is an optimistic view of human aspiration and endeavour.
The most intriguing character is the HeeChee race itself, and in this novel at least, Pohl carefully avoids the temptation to put flesh on their bones. He does not even provide the bones. Nothing is known of them, other than what can be deduced from their abandoned ships and tunnels.
Jack McDevitt’s ‘Engines of God’ employs the same device, and, as in ‘Gateway’ the novel is stronger for it.
One could argue that The HeeChee are a metaphor for either Happiness or God. The thing that we would risk all to search for, sure that it will bring us security and independence. Broadhead confuses wealth with spiritual and personal contentment, although at times it is his own fear of either failure or death which prevents him from achieving either.
The chance of a huge bonus for a scientific mission ends with Broadhead escaping the event horizon of a black hole, forced to leave his girlfriend trapped inside, subject to the effects of time-dilation and living through only a few seconds for every year that passes in Broadhead’s life.
The narrative guides us to Broadhead’s loss in parallel to the course of the therapy sessions which take us to his eventual confrontation with his own memory of the event, and the belief that he killed her, or worse, that she is still trapped, living out her last days over the coming centuries.
Without doubt, Pohl’s best work to date.