Classic Review: Gateway (Heechee Saga 1) by Frederik Pohl

Very few books manage to win the triple crown of Hugo, Nebula and Locus awards, and Gateway is one of the most deserving ones.  It features compelling worldbuilding, a very imperfect yet relatable narrator, a mystery that manages to remain mysterious till the end, and a setting that didn’t age at all since the novel’s publication nearly half a century ago.  Gateway is the thinking man’s science fiction, with very little action, and yet riveting thanks to a tight, fast-flowing plot.  It should be the required reading for any serious science fiction fan.

Robinette “Rob” Broadhead is one of the wealthiest people on the planet.  This wasn’t always so, however.  A lifetime ago, he was a miner in the food mines in rural America, just like his parents before him.  A lottery win changes his fate: he wins enough money for a one-way trip to Gateway, a mysterious asteroid that has been hollowed out by aliens a long time ago.  These aliens, called Heechee, left behind dozens of spaceships, which send their occupants to preselected destinations.  However, nobody knows how the ships work or where the coordinates take them.

Prospectors, as the volunteer spacemen and women are called, sign up for trips in these ships in order to find alien technology at the other end of their journey.  Many don’t make it back, and those who do often come back empty.  A lucky few strike it rich, and everyone wants to be like them.  The dread of the journey is strong, though, and Rob is not alone in delaying his deployment as much as possible.  It doesn’t help that he gets romantically involved with Klara, who also keeps delaying her next trip.  When they finally ship out, they find a very boring destination and come back empty.  That outcome, along with the tensions along the journey, put a strain on their relationship and they split.  Soon thereafter, however, they meet, get into a fight and Rob viciously beats Klara.  She leaves the asteroid, and Rob, full of remorse and suicidal thoughts, signs up to a solo journey.  Once at the final destination, his big break turns out to be a secondary Heechee asteroid that had been discovered before and is also populated by prospectors.  Desperate, Rob tries to change his course mid-flight, which is strongly forbidden, and becomes the first person ever to break a Heechee ship.  The reward for finding a faster way to the second asteroid evaporates to pay for the damage he’s caused.  However, his discovery of a faster route enables a new navigational theory, which the exploration corporation wants to prove, sending two ships to the same destination on different paths.  Rob signs up to one ship and Klara, who returned and reconciled with him, signs up to the other one.

All this is explained via flashbacks.  Rob is much older now, so rich that he doesn’t know what to do with his money, and deeply unhappy.  He bounces from one shallow relationship to the next, is lukewarm to his wealth management.  He finally signs up to therapy sessions with an A.I. psychiatrist.  Sigfrid, as Rob named the therapist, is provoking Rob into remembering these episodes from his old life, culminating into the revelation of what happened on that final journey.

Gateway is, first and foremost, a worldbuilding exercise.  It has very well fleshed out characters with rich background stories, but the focus is on our future world, to the point where even the Heechee discoveries and technology are incidental.  Pohl either skips them as unexplainable, or just mentions that a random artifact gave mankind a new technology.  Instead, the focus is on the environmental disasters on Earth, mankind’s expansion in the Solar system and the economics of Heechee prospecting.  It is not a stretch to consider the book to fall into the environmental science fiction category.  Earth is overpopulated to the point where Venus had to be colonized, and people are being slowly shipped to the few habitable planets that the prospectors found.  Food is scarce, hence the various methods of mining for substances that are then converted into a barely edible sludge.  The rich live under domes, and the super-rich can afford genuine fruits and real meat or coffee.

On top of this, Pohl spends considerable time developing and explaining the economics of Heechee prospecting, from terms and prices for living on the asteroid, to the reward structure for successful finds or hazard pay.  This is all governed by a semi-anonymous corporation, but unlike the evil corporations from so many other science fiction universes, this one managed to strike a fair deal with rewarding the prospectors just enough to attract a constant stream of new risk takers, and they never try to cheat anyone of their promised reward.

On the periphery, there are secondary worldbuilding elements, which are hinted at, but never fully developed.  A good example of these is the presence of military ships from multiple nations, guarding the asteroid.  This hints at a certain new geopolitical system but gives just enough tantalizing information to kickstart the reader’s imagination.  Put together, Pohl managed to create a very rich and believable universe, inhabited by the narrator and his friends.

Rob is not really the protagonist of Gateway.  He is a largely unreliable narrator, who serves to provide exposition.  For years I’ve been vocal that for me, a good protagonist is someone I can identify with or look up to.  Rob is neither.  He is an unapologetic coward and womanizer, and in at least one instance a violent abuser.  He may have lasting mental issues from growing up, but that does not justify his actions.  Yet, I liked him as a narrator.  His acceptance of his shortcomings preempts a lot of potential drama and lets the author and the reader focus on the world, as seen through Rob’s eyes.  The fact that Pohl managed to develop Rob into such a complex character, just proves the utter excellence of this title.

When I first read this book, in the early 1990s when western science fiction was finally allowed into my country, I thought it was full of unlikely social constructs.  In particular, the openly discussed promiscuity and sexual habits of the characters was something unfamiliar to me, and I considered it as a far less likely prediction than the environmental themes.  Thirty years later, however, the book sounds just as modern as any current title.  Gateway aged better than any other near-future book I’ve read.  This makes it extremely approachable for new readers, who’ll get to appreciate the strong worldbuilding and interesting characters.  I recommend this classic to absolutely anyone with even a passing interest in science fiction.

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