Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Beyond the Blue Event Horizon - Frederik Pohl

Beyond the Blue Event Horizon is the second book in Pohl's Heechee series, a series that started out with the 1972 novella The Merchants of Venus. This novella was reprinted in Platinum Pohl among other collections. The first Heechee novel, Gateway (1976), is one of his best regarded solo novels and won him a whole shelf full of awards. I guess it is not surprising that after that kind of success, a sequel has a hard time living up to expectations. I've heard a lot of people say this is one of those series you should only read the first book of. Pohl went on to write three more books and a bunch of short fiction, none of which I have read, but personally I didn't think Beyond the Blue Event Horizon a bad book. It is very different from Gateway though, that has to be said.

After successfully facing his successes and failures at Gateway, Robinette Broadhead is now living the life of a very rich man. He has married and has diverse interests in various profitable businesses as well as close ties with the Gateway corporation and even quite a bit of political influence. In other words, he has it made. Still, there is the nagging feeling of guilt that the woman who is the love of his life is stuck in a singularity. In business problems arise as well when an expedition to a distant Heechee installation, which Robinette hopes will help combat the chronic food shortages on Earth, meets with unexpected problems. It takes 25 days for instructions to reach the explorers, and as the situation in the outer solar system gets more and more out of control, Robinette's problems increase. Desperate action is needed.

One of the most striking differences between Gateway and Beyond the Blue Event Horizon is that Pohl employs a lot of different points of view in the second volume. In fact. Robinette doesn't even show up until the fourth chapter, some 50 pages into the novel. A lot of the major players in the novel get a point of view, as well as some of the machine entities, but there are quite a few of them, so we only get to scratch the surface of most of these characters. Where Pohl was very concerned with the psychology of Robinette in the first novel, the plot is obviously more important in the second. That is not to say that Robinette's internal struggle is not an important part of the story, he is still this petty, selfish but basically decent person we meet in Gateway, but Pohl leans quite heavily on events in the previous novel to convey this to the reader.

The Heechee on the other hand, although still very absent, are much more important to the story. The artifact being explored is clearly one of theirs but has been circling the sun since before humanity's ancestors learnt to use tools. It has a history of its own and that history includes other intelligences as well. Pohl reveals that history through these many points of view, gradually revealing a new part of the mystery with each chapter. It is this revealing that may put off some readers. In Gateway, the Heechee are a mystery. With only their incomprehensible artifacts and structures around, very little was actually known for sure about them. It made the story unpredictable in a way. With a Heechee artifact around, you never know what might happen. The increased understanding in Beyond the Blue Event Horizon changes that. Personally I don't think you can reasonably expect the mystery to stay intact for several books, there has to be at least some progress to keep the story moving,  but some readers will no doubt prefer their own questions, answers and guesses over those of Pohl.

Pohl's answers to the riddle the Heechee and their seemingly impossible technology pose, involve a lot of guesswork and quite a bit of cosmology and physics. I must admit some of it was right over my head. Still trying to wrap my head around Mach's principle for instance, an idea that was apparently one of the inspirations to Einstein's general theory of relativity. It also contains a number of references to Stephen Hawking's work on black holes. Where electronic shrink Siegfried is Robinette's discussion partner of choice in the first book, in this one his science program, aptly named Albert, takes over. It must be said, Albert is very good at explaining his guesses, which, especially towards the end of the novel, become more and more important to the plot. One would expect a program modelled on one of the greatest physicists of all time to do a little less guessing, but Robinette often orders him to do so anyway. Some of these guesses are obviously a set up for the next novel. It appears fairly obvious what Robinette's next project will be. This novel, after all, does not solve the issue that is the basis of his ever present guilt.

Pohl's work often have a satirical undertone. Many of his works criticize the excesses of capitalism for instance, or are fairly cynical about the political influence and proper healthcare money can buy. Robinette is not adverse to using his wealth to get things done his way for instance. It is not quite as apparent in this book however. The most notable thing about this novel is that it is drenched in fear. The fear of meeting the unexpected in space, where there is no retreat and very little margin for error. More than a few science fiction novels feature fear, suspicion and paranoia.  Especially the so called big dumb object stories, of which Gateway could be considered a variation, usually contain it in a general measure. I guess it is not as claustrophobic as Gateway, but the knowledge that aliens are near weighs on the characters. Due to the number of point of view characters, it is not as oppressive as in the previous novel, but it is almost always present in the background as each of these characters experiences their own personal flavour of fear.

There is one element in this novel that I absolutely didn't like, and that is the way Robinette's wife is portrayed. She is practically perfect in every way, knowing what is wrong with him before he knows himself and allowing him to go after the love of his life, who according to physics should be out of reach forever. Events in Gateway is more than enough reason to feel guilty but Robinette's treatment of his wife certainly adds to the problem. Siegfried's work doesn't appear to be done. The story is a bit open ended on this point. It looks like Pohl will get back to it in the third volume.

I guess you could say Pohl took a bit more conventional approach in writing Beyond the Blue Events Horizon. It makes the book less groundbreaking than Gateway was and probably is part of the reason why it didn't win any of the awards it was nominated for. The scope of it is obviously much wider too, and the many switches in point of view makes it appear a bit less structured than its predecessor. If you view the story as the unveiling of (part of) a mystery, it makes more than enough sense to me. In the end I guess I agree with many of the critics that it is not quite as good a novel as Gateway was. I also think it would have been nice if it had been a little more self contained; if it were fantasy I'd say this book suffered from the middle book syndrome a bit. That being said, it is a good science fiction novel in the classic sense. Plenty of hard science, scientific speculation and a much larger scope than the first book in this series offer their own attractions. I guess it depend on what you want out of a novel but I thought it was an enjoyable read.

Book Details
Title: Beyond the Blue Event Horizon
Author: Frederik Pohl
Publisher: Orb
Pages: 317
Year: 2009
Language: English
Format: paperback
ISBN: 978-0-7653-2177-0
First published: 1980

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