Classic review: Beyond the Blue Event Horizon (Heechee saga 2) by Frederik Pohl

Sequels to highly regarded books are a risky venture. The expectations are high, and even if the book meets them, the mood tends to be dampened by the more prominent hero’s journey curve, at the expense of worldbuilding. Where the first books in the series can hide some of their flaws behind the wonders of the new world or universe and an upward trajectory of the hero’s path to greatness, the sequel usually leads to the reader awakening to a bleaker world, where the wonders are not as appealing anymore, and the hero begins his downward spiral. When done right, the second volumes gain something of a cult following, and eventually can be considered the best of the series. Most often, however, they are seen as less entertaining and merely necessary for further exposition. The second Heechee novel does not follow the same rules, and this is why it’s just as appealing as the first book.

A few years after the events of Gateway, a prospector launched herself to a new destination. She arrived at another Heechee base in the Oort cloud, and the ship refused to travel back. Desperate, she launched herself in a slow ship towards Earth and froze herself, hoping that in a few thousand years someone would find her and thaw her out. Rob Broadhead, wealthier than before and now married, kept himself busy to rescue his girlfriend whom he left stranded in a black hole, and kept financing Heechee research and expeditions. One of them was a slow-moving terrestrial ship to the new artifact, which had been determined to be a food factory, harvesting comets and converting them into food.

This expedition involves a family of four people, who took nearly four years to reach the factory. Once on board, they discover that they are unable to follow the order to redirect the factory to an Eath orbit. Instead, they find more technology, and more importantly, an orphan named Wan, who knows the way to yet another Heechee artifact that houses an intelligent alien race, but also a way to communicate with the minds of former prospectors who had been captured by the aliens and dissected. An incident at the food factory reveals the surprise use of an artifact, the so-called dreaming couch. Whoever sleeps there has his subconscious mind transmitted to all mankind. Wan used to do it every 130 days, when he visited the food factory, and depending on his physical and mental state, caused widespread hysteria of various degrees, dubbed the 130-day fever.

The expedition quickly decides that if they are unable to proceed with moving the artifact, they should travel to Heeche Heaven, the artifact with the intelligent alien life, to gather as much information on the aliens and technology as they can. They leave the patriarch of the family, Payter, to mind the food factory. Once there, however, Wan and two of the explorers get caught by the aliens, leaving only one to transmit back the dire news.

Payter slowly succumbs to old age, loneliness and most recently despair, and devises a plan to extort the entire mankind by deliberately causing hysteria when he dreams in the couch. In the meantime, Rob has problems on his own. The last of Wan-induced fevers has seriously injured his wife, and he spends much of his time with her. The husband of the prospector who found the food factory sues him for the rights to the artifact, and the court grants him an injunction where Rob cannot continue directing any exploration. Natural disasters involving others of his investments are quickly draining his funds. Rob comes up with a plan, however, to travel from Earth to Heechee Heaven, save the family, learn the secret to Heechee navigation from the dead prospectors’ minds and redirect the food factory to Earth. He is stopped by the injunction, however, but when Payter dies in the dreaming couch, causing everyone on Earth to spasm, Rob manages to drag himself into a Heechee ship and travel to the Heaven artifact. He succeeds beyond his wildest dreams and comes back with technology that could conceivably rescue his former girlfriend from the black hole.

As I mentioned in the introduction, Pohl manages to avoid the biggest pitfalls of sequels. On the character journey front, he resolves Rob’s redemption arc in between the novels. In Gateway, Rob was a deeply flawed person, and throughout the book he had been trying to grow up and forgive himself. The book ended with him realizing his hidden pain, even though the actual healing process didn’t start yet. This book opens with Rob already mature and mentally stable. He still talks about his weaknesses, but in a matter-of-fact way, and not as something that would really limit him. If anything, he swings the opposite direction from the first book: he is filthy rich, but still has his moral compass and integrity. Even when he’s being abrasive to others or gets into conflict, I can’t help but root for him.

What also helps is the fact that the book is presented from multiple points of view. There are chapters following Wan, Rob, some of the expeditionary force, and even two of the aliens. This dilutes the attention towards character arcs and instead shifts the focus on worldbuilding.

I personally had problems with sequels due to worldbuilding ever since I learned to read. Even such classics as the Lord of the Rings trilogy didn’t escape this issue. The first book was so wondrous because it established the entire world. I could spend hours imagining Middle-earth and its races, rather than paying too close an attention to the characters or story. By the second book, the novelty wore out, and I was left with the story and the characters. And I found out that the story was somewhat bleak, the characters fallible, and the enemy perhaps too strong. Not so here. Pohl kept the worldbuilding in Gateway to a minimum. All action took place in a hollowed-out asteroid, in a tiny ship or in a psychologist’s office. This let him to expand his universe in the second novel to the same extent as in the first one, so I was constantly presented with new artifacts, technologies, political and economic situation, and, of course, the aliens. In addition to an utterly likable protagonist, I kept myself entertained with new elements of the worldbuilding.

Part of my entertainment came also from Pohl’s ability to say just enough to keep me intrigued, and to help me to figure out things on my own. He does exposition dumps in the book, but only for large-scale pictures, such as black hole theory or the expansion of the universe. Personal level elements, such as character motivations, Wan’s weird nomenclature for events and objects, and even the socioeconomic state of the world, are drip-fed, with plenty of opportunities for the reader to fill in the blanks.

Thanks to this very careful information dumping, the expansive worldbuilding to rival the previous book, and a protagonist who is truly aspirational, I got to enjoy Beyond the Blue Event Horizon as much as I did Gateway. One could say that they are completely separate books, only sharing the same universe, but the main character ties them nicely together. As good as the first novel was, I believe this book will appeal to an even larger audience.

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