My life in outer space

Nebula Award – Winner

Ancillary Justice – Ann Leckie (Imperial Radch #1) (2013)

Ancillary Justice (Imperial Radch, #1)

Although I am all for authors giving us a challenging read there are times when I wish for that Glossary of Terms which used to be a major feature of Sf and Fantasy novels.
I can just about live without that here, although a list of characters may have been useful since there is a relatively large cast all bearing long and unfamiliar names. This is acceptable since we are in a far far future where humanity has diversified both physically and culturally. The main challenge in this novel is the author’s use of pronouns to denote gender, since many cultures have languages – or so it seemed to me – where misuse of the terms for ‘he’ and ‘she’ could result in a grave insult. Thus, most characters throughout the book are referred to as ‘she’ as a kind of default setting.
It’s an interesting device to employ and no doubt some critics will argue – perhaps with good reason – that such a device subverts the reader’s mental view of the characters with some no doubt seeing main characters as either male or female. On the other hand others, including myself reluctantly, might suggest that a neutral gender pronoun should have been employed since the constant use of a word with which we are all intimately familiar as denoting female is simply distracting and despite the reader’s attempts to do otherwise will no doubt result in her (or him) visualising all the characters as female. I gave up and did just that very thing early on in the novel.
Breq, as the main character calls herself, is the last survivor of the sentient ship ‘Justice of Toren’ which was destroyed many years ago. ‘Survivor’ is perhaps the wrong word since Breq was a part of the ship’s consciousness and still identifies as being the ship.
In flashbacks through the novel we discover why the ship was killed and why Breq is on a mission to track down an alien weapon that can kill those who destroyed ‘Justice of Toren’.
Leckie has to be credited with having created a rich and detailed human universe of which we only see a small part. Human civilization is mostly dominated by the Radch, which employs ships such as Justice of Toren to carry out enforcement. The Radch is controlled by a multi- gestalt human named Anaander Maniaani. Indeed, the events which unfold within the narrative all lead back to one action on the part of Maniaani, and will no doubt continue to do so with a sense of Shakespearean inevitability to some ultimate conclusion in successive volumes.
Maniaani, it appears, is suffering a schism in her consciousness, possibly as a consequence of being infiltrated by the alien Presger, resulting in her being effectively at war with herself.
The novel raises issues of slavery, loyalty, consciousness and the morality of a dictatorship which sacrifices innocents to bring peace to billions.
It was nominated for and won several major awards including the Arthur C Clarke award and perhaps justly so. It is a well crafted and complex piece which is all the more importantly believable and featuring characters with flaws and human vulnerabilities, this all despite the fact that some are no longer completely human at all.
One is glad in this instance, given that it does not have a complete conclusion, that it can still be categorised as a stand-alone novel. I have always had minor qualms about the first books of a trilogy being nominated for such awards. I guess it upsets my sense of order since my view is that awards should be reserved for single novels.
Perhaps fortunately my views aren’t likely to sway the opinions of the selectors a huge amount so the point is moot.


All Clear – Connie Willis (2010)

.All Clear.

This is the sequel to ‘Blackout’ which follows three of Mr Dunworthy’s historians from an Oxford of the 2060s who have travelled back to various periods of World War II to observe the lives of the British, mainly in London.
Something is wrong, however, as the ‘drops’ (where the travellers go to return to their own time) are not opening, and the historians are concerned that they are interfering too much with the past and may have altered the course of the war.
It has to be said that Willis’ research appears to be impeccable and she creates a wartime London that fairly rings with veracity. She does stretch credulity a tad by having her protagonists meet Agatha Christie (who worked in St Barts Hospital dispensary), General Patton, the Queen (the late Queen Mother of Elizabeth II) and Alan Turing, although to give Willis credit, the characters had very good reason to be in the right place at the right time.
In some ways Willis has become the master of the dramatic farce and, if I am honest, it does get a little wearing as we have already had one large volume of people looking for other people and arriving just as they left, or seeing them in a crowd and being thwarted by jostling members of that crowd and just missing the person they needed to talk to.
As it turns out there is method in Willis’ madness and all becomes clear in All Clear at the denouement.
Comparisons have to be made with Stephen King’s 11/22/63 since both novels take the premise of someone returning to the scene of historical events. In both cases also, despite the SF framework, they are very much portraits of the time and place in question. Willis’ vision is, however, a much cosier, romanticised place despite the excellent depiction of loss, tragedy and heroism in the London she recreates.
We get to be taken to St Pauls Cathedral during the blitz, to a devastated East End, to Bletchley Park where Turing and the rest of the boffins were hard at work on breaking the enigma code, and to a plethora of Tube stations which served as air raid shelters and, it appears, impromptu theatres where people put on plays and shows to keep up morale.
We see the everyday lives of women, working in Department stores or driving ambulances, sharing rooms in substandard lodgings and coping with the deprivations of rationing and the ever present threat of bombs.
The actual practicalities of Time Travel science are not gone into, and the logistics of it do not bear close scrutiny. Mr Dunworthy talks a lot about chaotic systems, but there is little in the way of an explanation as to how Time Travel actually works and why, for instance, it transports them, their clothing and any accessories without taking bits of whatever surface they happen to be standing on. It’s also a problem for two people to occupy the same timeline, which is why it is a race against time (no pun intended) for Polly – who has already visited WWII once – to return to the future from 1941 before her past self arrives in 1943. It’s not clear why this would be such an issue, although it does appear that the space-time continuum has ways of defending itself against alteration of the timeline and paradox. In essence, the scientific aspects have been rendered merely devices within what could ultimately be deemed a complex Romantic drama.
It’s far more than that though. Willis has a formidable talent for creating fully-rounded characters, and there is something slightly Dickensian about the range of incidental characters who interact with the protagonists, many of them women. If nothing else, she has to be commended for pushing the women to the forefront and demonstrating what enormous contributions and sacrifices women of World War II made.
Agatha Christie is seen briefly, and her books are mentioned and discussed several times, which is possibly why Willis throws in a Christie-esque mystery right at the end. Polly looks at her rescuer and realises something about him which is only hinted at. Are the clues, in true Agatha Christie style, all within the text for us to decipher? If so, it’s the best trick played on an SF reader in a long time, and I for one, feel royally had.
Mind you, if I had to be royally had by anyone, I’m glad it’s Connie Willis. It’s a pleasure, Connie.

Ringworld – Larry Niven (1970)

Ringworld (Ringworld #1)

‘With RINGWORLD, Larry Niven reaches full maturity as a writer of some of the most vivid and inventive science fiction the past decade has seen.

Niven has steadily constructed a logical and coherent piece of space all his own in a series of short stories of which Neutron Star, a Hugo Award Winner, was one.

Now, in RINGWORLD, he carries out the promise of the earlier structure and takes his familiar characters, the puppeteers, to a fantastically conceived scientifically logical world – the Ringworld of his title – a towering and beautiful concept. ‘

Blurb to the 1970 Ballantine Paperback Edition

Ringworld is undoubtedly a Landmark Science Fiction novel, winner of both the Hugo and Nebula Awards and possibly the definitive Big Dumb Object novel.
It’s a work which manages to succeed both as an ideas novel and as one of action adventure.
Niven is one of those SF authors who chooses to set the majority of his novels in the same fictional universe, in his case in a spherical region of space approximately seventy light years in diameter which is known to his readers as ‘Known Space’.
This one-author milieu is a common practice and works for both authors and readers since although the novels do not have to be directly linked, and may be set hundreds or thousands of years apart, the background is a familiar one for readers and allows authors to explore and develop aspects of already established elements.
‘Known Space’ for Niven had already been explored in short story format, anthology collections of which are available, and in the novels ‘A Gift From Earth’ and ‘The World of Ptaavs’, and so the background was already set for the ambitious ‘Ringworld’.
Louis Wu, a two-hundred year old pilot, kept young by the effects of a longevity drug, is recruited by the alien Nessus, a Pearson’s Puppeteer, thought to be insane by the standards of his ‘cowardly’ race (a species of two-headed, three legged highly intelligent creatures, driven by a racial urge of self-protection and avoidance of danger) to investigate an artefact surrounding a star far outside Known Space.
Along with a Kzin – a ferocious feline species – and Teela Brown – a human woman genetically predisposed to being lucky – Louis and Nessus set off to investigate the anomaly.
The synopsis, put so coldly, does not do justice to what turns out to be a far more complex tale of ingenious scientific extrapolation, alien psychology, hidden motives and sheer sense of wonder.
The artefact itself is a massive ring some ninety million miles in diameter surrounding a star (Niven uses the analogy of a strip of ribbon, fifty feet long, arranged on its edge in a hoop facing a candle at the centre of the circle created). The inner surface of the ring has walls a thousand feet high and contains what is essentially an Earth environment with enough room for three million times the surface of the Earth.
One of the most interesting aspects of this book is the relationship between the various alien races which is very much driven by the psychology of the races involved.
By the time this novel was written we had thankfully moved away from the prevalent idea that humans (usually American humans) were natural candidates if not to rule the galaxy then at least to guide its direction or dictate policy. In EE Doc Smith’s Lensman series for instance, Humanity is the chosen race, and certainly selectively-bred members of it are destined to take over as Custodians of The Galaxy. Niven has no such pretensions here. Humans, although having come out on top in a war with the rather Klingon-esque Kzin, are technologically inferior to other races with whom they have come into contact.
The Puppeteers seem at first to be somewhat comical creatures; small, white-furred, swan-necked, two headed beasts. They are pathologically cautious and seem harmless, but as the novel progresses, Louis and the rest of the crew discover not only their overwhelming technological strength, but their rather disturbing involvement in Earth and Kzin history.
Although altruistic, the Puppeteers will go to any lengths to protect their individual or racial safety, and describing them as ‘cowards’ is, as becomes clear, imposing a human value on an alien psychology. There is a parallel again here with Doc Smith’s Lensman series and Nadrek of Palain VII whose racial psychology was almost exactly that of the Puppeteers in that individual safety was the prime motivation of the Palainian psyche. Nadrek too, was also considered ‘‘mad’’ by members of his own race since he chose to expose himself to unwarranted danger by interaction with alien races.
Again, ‘Ringworld’ is also one of those novels that should have been left as a standalone piece. The sequels, although explaining the origins of the Ringworld, decline in quality as the series progresses. This, taken in isolation however, is a masterwork by a writer at the height of his powers.

Rendezvous with Rama – Arthur C Clarke (1973)

Rendezvous with Rama (Rama, #1)

‘Rama – a metallic cylinder approaching the sun at tremendous velocity.

Rama – first product of an alien civilization to be encountered by man.

Rama – a world of technological marvels and artificial ecology.

What is its purpose in this year 2131? Who is inside it? And why?’

Blurb from the 1974 Pan paperback edition.

A giant cylinder is spotted entering the Solar System and a team of astronauts is sent out to investigate.
The cylinder is unfeasibly vast and (it is discovered) hollow, with gravity on the inside of the cylinder produced by centrifugal force. The interior surface is lit by enormous lamps, covered with a variegated landscape and divided in two by a band of sea which exists in a circle around the inside.
Perhaps Clarke’s best work, this succeeds (as did Niven’s ‘Ringworld’) by its sheer lack of explanation. In fact, the entire novel is, in some ways, an exercise in minimalist adventure, since despite the excitement of the exploration itself and having to rescue a crewmember who becomes stranded on the other side of the central sea, nothing really happens.
One cannot help, however, still being awed by Clarke’s depiction of this magnificently vast alien mystery which appears in our Solar System and allows us inside her enormous shell before shortly afterward disappearing.
Again, like Niven’s Ringworld, the novel was later lessened by inferior sequels (written in this case in collaboration) and which gradually eroded the awe and mystery which was an integral part of the original books. If you haven’t read the Rama sequels you’d be best advised not to bother. The writing is far inferior to Clarke at his best and one suspects that his literary input was minimal.
However, getting back to the original, this is a novel which well deserves the title ‘classic’ and still manages to evoke a sense of wonder set against a background of a universe vast and ultimately unknowable.

The Einstein Intersection – Samuel R Delany (1967)

The Einstein Intersection

Delany wrote at least some of this in his early twenties in Greece, which is evinced by the fact that some of the chapters are prefaced by excerpts from his diaries of the time, in which he records his interactions with the locals and his thoughts about his writing. He details how random events influenced the narrative, such as a young red-headed boy running across his path; something which gave him the idea of changing the colour of Kid Death’s hair to red.
It appears to be a kind of personal exorcism for Delany who was writing out the influences and obsessions of his early life, one of them being Billy the Kid.
The events of the novel are set so far in the future that the sun has captured two extra planets that now orbit between the Earth and the Sun.
This is a world recovering from a nuclear war and, in Dickian fashion, ‘different’ people abound. In Lo Lobey’s village (‘Lo’ being a title for ‘functional’ people) there are many ‘different’ people. The severely non-functional are kept in ‘kages’ and looked after until they either die or – in some cases – prove their functionality.
The people have many myths of the past, such as the story of Orpheus and, amusingly, that of The Beatles. As La Dire tells Lobey:-

‘Let’s talk about mythology, Lobey. Or let’s you listen. We’ve had quite a time assuming the rationale of the world. The irrationale presents just as much of a problem. You remember the legend of the Beatles? You remember the Beatle Ringo left his love even though she treated him tender. He was the one Beatle who did not sing, so the earliest forms of the legend go. After a hard day’s night he and the rest of the Beatles were torn apart by screaming girls, and he and the other Beatles returned, finally at one, with the great rock and the great roll.’

La Dire, who looks after the kaged non-functional children, goes on to tell Lobey that the legend of Ringo is a version of an earlier legend, that of Orpheus.
Lobey, who has a hollow scimitar the doubles as a flute, falls in love with a telekinetic mute called Friza, who also has power over animals.
When she is killed, Lobey vows to avenge her and finds himself reliving the legend of Orpheus.
It’s a beautiful poetic piece of work in some ways typical of its time. There are echoes of Philip K Dick and the romanticism of some of the work of Roger Zelazny, Ray Bradbury and others. Certainly it is typical of the Romanticism of the time. Despite its reliance on human myths and concepts, the central premise is that these descendants of humanity are no longer human and consequently will develop new rules and societies more suitable for them.
One custom that has been adopted within society is that of the mixing of the genes, and so having sex with strangers in this time appears to be beneficial to society.
Lobey, then receives instruction from La Dire (who appears to be somewhat prophetic) that he must go on a journey to kill that which killed Friza.
First he must kill a minotaur-like mutation, which leads him into an underground computer complex.
Kid Death is the counterpart of Hades and has the power to bring Friza back to life if necessary. Lobey must however travel to Kid Death’s own domain in order to confront him.
Along the way he meets various other characters and joins a group of dragon-herders who are travelling to Branning-at-Sea.
Delany is seldom an easy read, since there are often levels to his work that are missed on a first reading. With this, however, one can enjoy it for what it superficially is, which is an epic quest tale with the Campbell structure.

The Forever War – Joe Haldeman (1974)

The Forever War

Haldeman’s seminal work was written perhaps as a catharsis following his experiences as a participant in the Vietnam war. In the introduction to the Gollancz SF Masterworks edition, which is a revision of the first publication with an originally excised section reinstated, Haldeman explains the rationale behind his vision in which a young private, William Mandella, is drafted into a senseless war against an incpomprehensible alien culture. Due to the effects of relativistic speed, Mandella’s experience of the war is several years, while for those left back on Earth it is a thousand.
Early on in the war, he returns home to find his world almost as alien as the planets he has fought on.
To reduce the earth’s population, the world government has encouraged mass homosexuality. Jobs and food are scarce. Mandella’s now elderly mother has herself become a lesbian and has to employ a bodyguard to escort her when she goes out.
Unable to adjust, Mandella and his lover and fellow-private, Marygay, decide to return to the military.
A poignant moment comes when Mandella and Marygay are assigned different postings. They realise that they will end up in different time-periods and will never see each other again.
Mandella’s posting is a bleak system outside the main galaxy, a mission from which he may never return, and even if he did, it would be seven hundred years in the future.
Mandella (which is, of course, almost a complete anagram of Haldeman) is now a major and in charge of a squadron of exclusively homosexual troops who refer to him as ‘The Old Queer’.
He has seen nearly all his friends die, but against the odds he lives through another battle and his remaining troops return to another very different Earth to discover that the war is now over
It is interesting to compare this with Heinlein’s ‘Starship Troopers’, written some fifteen years earlier. Both feature a soldier rising through the ranks in a seemingly interminable war against inscrutable aliens (in Heinlein’s case, giant bugs). Heinlein’s work is a sensationalist work of pulp SF action in which (rather like ‘The Puppet Masters’) the aliens are not something to be understood, but something to be destroyed. Until the end, Haldeman’s novel follows a similar course, but at the same time he examines the consequences to individuals and engages the reader in the moral debate. Though there are some wonderful battle-sequences, they do not dominate the narrative and it is the human interest that in the end provides the meat of the novel.
One has to forgive Haldeman for providing an upbeat ending, although one wonders whether the novel would have been more powerful if the war continued, going on, as in the title, forever, ceaselessly and senselessly.
He does however, add that the war began as a misunderstanding, a simple lack of communication; a small footnote which highlights the terrible irony and absurdity inherent in many wars of our past. Throughout, also, there is a cold awareness of the expendability of human soldiers.
Haldeman claims as his influence Samuel R Delaney.

The Dispossessed – Ursula K LeGuin (1974)

The Dispossessed

‘The Principle of Simultaneity – a stupendous concept which will revolutionize interstellar communications between the nine Known Worlds. it is the life work of Shevek, a brilliant physicist from the anarchist world of Anarres.
But Shevek’s ideas are being stifled by jealous colleagues. So he goes to the authoritarian hell-planet Urras from whence his ancestors fled, seeking a different kind of freedom – and finds himself embroiled in deadly intrigue and bloody revolution…’

Blurb from the 1979 Panther paperback edition

On the cover of my seventies paperback is a brief quote from a Science Fiction Monthly review which says ‘destined to become a classic,’ which it undoubtedly did.
Set against the backdrop of LeGuin’s Hainish universe (in which Earth is just one of an unknown number of planets which the Hainish seeded with Humanity over a million years ago) we follow the life of scientist Shevek, a citizen of the anarchist moon Anarres, which orbits the parent world of Urras. Anarres has survived as a communist/anarchist state – based on the teachings of Odo – for a hundred and seventy years, and has had little contact with the parent world. Now, Shevek, on the verge of discovering a Universal Temporal Theorem (which will, among other things, allow instantaneous communication throughout the universe) finds his work hampered by jealous colleagues and the very nature of Odonian politics.
In fact, lack of communication is a recurring theme throughout the novel. Some of the young scientists face stiff opposition from the other anarchists when they begin to engage in radio dialogue with scientists on Urras.
Shevek, realising that the scientific community on Anarres will never allow his work to be published, arranges to travel to Urras in the trade freighter that occasionally lands on the moon, at the risk of being labelled a traitor and never allowed to return.
Thus, we then see Urras through the eyes of Shevek, a man unaccustomed to the concept of money or class systems. Ultimately Shevek’s presence gives impetus to the downtrodden masses of Urras who have already staged uprisings against the military government in another part of the world.
There are deep flaws in both of LeGuin’s societies. Shevek’s world, ostensibly an anarchist/communist state without laws, has evolved its own innate laws of rigidity. Avante garde composers are withheld teaching or composing posts, for instance, because their work doesn’t fit an acceptable Odonian aesthetic. Shevek himself finds it impossible to work at pure scientific research without political considerations and his colleagues’ rather selfish motives getting in the way. One feels that the Odonian dream has only survived on Anarres because resources are so scarce that no one could get rich even if they wanted to.
The story alternates between Shevek’s experiences on Urras and flashbacks of how life brought him to the point of leaving Anarres. The contrast works very well and LeGuin skilfully paints a dual portrait of the younger and older Shevek.
The societies are exquisitely realised and rendered in such believable detail one is drawn immediately into the dust and sweat of Anarres and the decadent pomp of Urras.
It’s a wonderful book, and one that will stay with you.

Dune – Frank Herbert (1965)


A novel which broke the mould, reinvented the concept of Space Opera and begot a minor cult, as groundbreaking novels are wont to do.
It’s rather spooky to look at Dune again in the light of the events of September 11, since we have in this book a situation where a desert people are militarily outclassed and dominated by a Superpower which wishes to retain control over the desert’s vital resource.
It’s not a realistic comparison, since in no way can I compare the revolt of Herbert’s Fremen with the cowardly actions of certain terrorists, but there are no doubt conspiracy theorists who will find the comparisons attractive. In this case it isn’t oil which is being fought over, but the melange spice of Arrakis, just as vital to transportation between stars as oil is for transportation between cities.
One could possibly compare the USA with the Evil Empire of Shaddam (even that name has a spooky resonance, but with the wrong side) and the planet Arrakis with the Middle East, but one would have to examine Arab-American relations in the Nineteen Sixties to get much mileage from that.
Undeniably, the Fremen are essentially Arabic in flavour, but the rest of Galactic Society is based around a feudal aristocratic system of powerful Houses, presided over by the Emperor Shaddam. It is an aggressive and brutal system in which assassination and treachery are rife.
Interlacing this network of families is the Sisterhood of the Bene Gesserit, an organisation which has its own reasons for an intense interest in the melange spice, a strange organic substance which can endow its users with a form of prescience and telepathy.
Another major player in the politics of the galaxy is the Spacer’s Guild, a professional group of mutated humans who use the properties of the spice to sense changes in space and steer ships through hyperspace across the galaxy. They are also bound into the political web which is battling for control of Arrakis, since without the spice, which can only be found on Arrakis, the guildsmen would be useless, and traffic throughout the galaxy would come to a halt.
Herbert skilfully stage-manages the political manoeuvring and chicanery which may or may not be being controlled from behind the scenes by the Sisterhood. Thus it seems as though politics itself conspires to set in motion the events leading to the fulfilment of a Bene Gesserit prophesy.
Ironically, the religion which is integral to Fremen life contains elements implanted centuries before by the Bene Gesserit in order that the Sisterhood would be welcomed by their society. Thus, the Fremen, like the Sisterhood themselves, also know of the prophecy of the Kwisatz Hadderach.
It’s a clever trick on Herbert’s part, as the coming of the Superior Being can be seen simultaneously as the unexpected culmination of a long term Bene Gesserit plan and the true fulfilment of a long religious expectation on the part of the Fremen.
It’s not by any means an anti-religious book, although it is realistic about the nature of organised religion. It shows that religious systems are, by their very nature, political systems, or at least are tied into the political structures within which they exist.
Herbert’s universe of techno-feudalism is so well realised the reader feels quite at ease with the absurd and anachronistic ideas of Dukes and Barons wielding power over dominions of planets. There is a pervasive atmosphere of decadence and unhealthy opulence (particularly with regard to the House Harkonnen whose Baron is a corpulent gay monster who revels in the sexual gratification derived from the dying throes of his young victims) which is contrasted with the simple yet disciplined lives of the Fremen.
Gorgeous, complex, multi-layered. It’s a work of genius.

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.