Monday, February 22, 2010

Gateway - Frederik Pohl

A while ago I read Platinum Pohl, a collection of Frederik Pohl's short fiction and after a couple of stories I was sure I had to read more of his works. Fortunately Pohl is well represented in Gollacz's SF Masterworks series so it was not all that hard to find a copy of what is generally considered one of his better novels. Better may be a bit of an understatement here, Pohl needs an entire shelf just to house the awards he has won for this book. Gateway got him a Nebula, a Hugo, a John W. Campbell and a Locus award. That's right, for one book. Now each of these have been known to make odd choices come award season but winning all four... well, I figured this book's got to have something going for it. And indeed it does.

In the near future (seen from the late seventies, so probably right about now) Earth's population has reached a staggering, and unsustainable, twenty-five billion inhabitants. To supply food for all these people production methods we'd consider distasteful, to put it mildly. Robinette Broadhead is one of the people working in an industry squeezing out the earth's resources to produce food. His life consists of work, sleep and more work. Until he wins the lottery one day. His ticket out of a dreary existence and a dead end job. Robinette, or Bob as he is called for most of the novel, buys a ticket to the only place where he can become truly wealthy: Gateway.

This wealth comes at the price though. Gateway is an alien artefact circling our sun, a facility to dock spaceships built by a mysterious and long vanished race called the Heechee. Their ships are still functional, they can even be operated, but nobody has the faintest idea how they work. Brave or foolish men and women travel them to distant places in the galaxy in search of new resources, technologies and materials to support earth's huge population. Some return famous and wealthy, some return in tiny bits and pieces, some don't return at all.

The book moves back and forward between two story lines. One consists entirely of Robinette's sessions with his computer therapist. He refers to the machine as Siegfried von Shrink and from what we gather early on in the book Robinette certainly needs some therapy. The man has issues. More than a few in fact, but one is dominating his life and the reader spends most of the novel figuring out what it is. Siegfried is a brilliant character if you can stand a little Freudianism. He's ever patient and always needling Robinette to reveal just a little bit more of himself. Robinette gets so fed up with him that he tries to gain the upper hand in these conversations in a very petty way but even that Siegfried manges to turn on him. Although not quite what one expects of a classic science fiction novel, the conversations between Siegfried and Robinette are fascinating to read. At times frustrating, humorous and, despite highlighting all Robinette's negative qualities, even touching. I'm sure not everybody will agree with me on this but I quite enjoyed this part of the book.

Fortunately for those who disagree with me, Gateway also contains a number of classic science fiction themes mainly incorporated in the second story line. It is set on Gateway were a younger Robinette is trying to make his fortune. The way Pohl describes the trips the prospectors make, getting into a Heechee ship is about as smart as putting a gun against your head and pull the trigger to see if it's loaded. Not that stops them but it does create a certain atmosphere on Gateway. Any trip may be your last and people tend to enjoy if while it lasts. To escape the fear and stress of their situation Gateway is quite liberal when it comes to sexuality and drugs and Robinette takes full advantage. With the ever present but curiously absent Heechee, Pohl creates a certain sense of mystery in the books. He raises an awful lot of questions about them in the novel but answers very few.

Most of the book is seen through Robinette's eyes but Pohl also includes snippets of material from other sources. He stresses the fact that Siegfried is a computer by showing us some of the code. It looks a bit like what little I remember of gw-basic and it's probably one of the more clearly dated parts of the novel. They also include brief mission reports on flights from Gateway, stressing just how dangerous those expeditions are and how rewarding they can be and a number of classified adds circulating on Gateway among other things. Robinette is a bit too busy hiding from himself to pay all that much attention to such details so they provide a welcome insight in what is going on on Gateway.

At the very end of the novel the two story lines come together in what I thought was a pretty strong finale. This again is something not everybody will agree on. The way Siegfried finally manages a breakthrough and reveal to us just what it is that is causes these intense feelings of guilt in Robinette is, I suppose, debatable. Siegfried's parting comment though... I certainly didn't see that one coming. It opens up all manner of possibilities for sequels, of which Pohl indeed wrote a couple. Gateway is over thirty years old by now, and in some respects it is clearly dated. Advances in information and computer technology have far outstripped what Pohl describes and I'm pretty sure all the Freudian stuff is not nearly as popular with psychiatrists as it used to be. Gateway nonetheless remains a very readable and highly enjoyable book. I liked Pohl's dry humour and his tight control of the plot. I'm not that well read in 1970s science fiction (yet) but this certainly is one of the better ones I have come across. Definitely recommended.

Book Details
Title: Gateway
Author: Frederik Pohl
Publisher: Gollancz
Pages: 313
Year: 1999
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-1-85798-818-5
First published: 1977

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