Fredrik Pohl: Gateway

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Gateway SF Masterworks Edition

Fredrik Pohl was a genuine Science Fiction legend. Gateway is widely regarded (including by the author himself) as his single best work. Gateway won both Hugo and Nebula Awards.

Gateway itself is an alien spaceport, carved out of an asteroid or captured comet, complete with thousands of self-piloting faster than light spacecraft with pre-programmed destinations. It was apparently used by its creators (the Heechee as humanity calls them) as a base for exploration. Because Heechee technology is so scarce, this creates a gold rush scenario where prospectors take risks on flights to unknown destinations. Because the Heechee were so interested in astronomical events, the time that has elapsed since Gateway was abandoned becomes a major factor. Stars that were on the verge of going supernova have now exploded. Blackholes that were being observed at a safe distance have now grown. In a memorable passage from the book, our narrator’s first experience of a craft returning to Gateway is one where the remains of the crew are smeared across the windscreen. Crews routinely starve to death on journeys that are just too long or return maimed. However, the rewards for successful missions are in the magnitude of multi-millions. 

Robinette Broadhead (Rob) is an unreliable narrator, who is not exactly a sympathetic or likeable character. He comes across as a self-obsessed narcissist most of the time. He came to Gateway after winning a lottery. The retrospective narrative structure of the book means it is like watching a car crash unfold in slow motion. We gradually get closer and closer to finding out what happened to Rob. We find out what led him to seek help from an AI psychotherapist. Pohl really puts the reader’s sympathy to the test later in the book, when in a fit of jealous rage, Rob nearly beats his girlfriend to death. But by this stage, we are too invested in the character to look away. It is perhaps at this point that the reader realises just how far Rob is removed from reality, as he tries to justify his actions based around the behaviour of wolves.

Overall, this is a complex, difficult book that elevated the science fiction genre. Its real strength is in its ability to portray flawed characters in a consummately fantastical scenario that is drawn in a brutally realistic way. If you are looking for a heroic swashbuckling narrative, you will not find it here. This is a story about broken individuals struggling for success in a system that is stacked against them. It is a book about procrastination and displacement activity. 

It is a testament to what Pohl created in Gateway that there are so many spin-off works based around the concept. One thing I noticed was how similar the central idea in the Expanse was to Pohl’s creation. For me, it’s the little details in the work that really serve to bring it alive: The computer listing of Siegfried von Shrink’s computer program, the Adverts, the Terms and Conditions of Gateway, the interview snippets with Heechee experts and mission reports. The only thing you might struggle with is just how self-centred the main character is. Also, the amount of smoking that occurs seems rather anachronistic by current standards.

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