In this bi-weekly series reviewing classic science fiction and fantasy books, Alan Brown looks at the front lines and frontiers of the field: books about soldiers and spacers, scientists and engineers, explorers and adventurers. Stories full of what Shakespeare used to refer to as “alarums and excursions”: battles, chases, clashes, and the stuff of excitement.
Today we’re going to look at a classic science fiction book: Gateway, by one of the most influential authors in the field, Frederik Pohl. But I’m flexing the format somewhat, because this is not a re-read; instead, I’m reading the novel for the first time. It was one of my dad’s favorites, and he repeatedly tried to get me to read it. I had started it without success, and always promised to finish it someday. Recently, even though my dad is gone, I decided to keep that promise. And I’m glad I did.
In preparing this column over the past few years, I’ve gotten a new appreciation for many of the science fiction authors from the last century, and their place in history. I may have known many of their stories and books, but I didn’t know much about the authors themselves. One author I’d encountered without appreciating his full impact on the science fiction field was Frederik Pohl. I had read a couple of his books—both co-authored books from early in his career—and a few of his short stories from here or there. One of them, The Reefs of Space, I recently found in a used bookstore, and reviewed here. In preparing the biography segment for that review, I found out Pohl was not only a science fiction writer, he was involved in the field in many other ways.
I didn’t know he promoted many noted authors as a literary agent. Nor did I appreciate his work as a magazine editor, or how many new and diverse voices he brought into the field. When I reviewed Samuel Delany’s Nova, I found out that Pohl had supported his writing early in his career. When I reviewed Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, I discovered it had been published in If when Pohl was editor. When I reviewed Niven’s Ringworld, I learned that Pohl had published Niven’s earliest stories. And I found Pohl was also a book editor, an academic, a fan, and even a blogger. Pohl’s name would come up again and again, and I soon realized his impact on the field was enormous. I remembered how my dad had suggested I read more of Pohl’s work, and finding Gateway in my favorite used bookstore, decided it was finally time to take dad’s advice, and read the book. I found it to be groundbreaking in its complexity, compelling in its mystery, and often darkly disturbing.
About the Author
Frederik Pohl (1919-2013) was a prolific and profoundly influential American science fiction author, who also helped to shape the genre as a fan writer, academic, non-fiction writer, editor, and literary agent. He was a member of the seminal science fiction fan club the Futurians. He served as a weatherman in the Army Air Corps during World War II.
During a career that spanned over seven decades, Pohl wrote stories in a wide variety of styles and settings. His work was often humorous, but also dark and cynical, and he was willing to look unblinkingly at the worst instincts of mankind. He collaborated with a number of other science fiction greats, including Cyril Kornbluth, Jack Williamson, and Lester del Rey. He used pseudonyms extensively during his career, which resulted in a body of work larger than many people appreciated at the time. His Heechee series, which included the novel Gateway, and which many consider his finest work, grew to five novels and one collection. Pohl himself said he considered Gateway his best work, in part because it was so personal.
Pohl edited a number of science fiction magazines during his career. Most notable was his work editing both Galaxy and If magazines during the 1960s, when If received Hugo Awards for Best Magazine for three consecutive years. Pohl hired Judy-Lynn del Rey as an assistant at Galaxy, starting off her distinguished career as a science fiction editor. During this time, those magazines published a very compelling body of work, far more diverse than what was appearing in Analog at the time. Under Pohl’s leadership, Galaxy printed works by Poul Anderson, Gordon Dickson, Harlan Ellison, Frank Herbert, Larry Niven, Clifford Simak, Cordwainer Smith, Robert Silverberg, and Jack Vance. If serialized three novels by Robert Heinlein, and printed works by Samuel Delany, Harlan Ellison, Keith Laumer, Jacqueline Lichtenberg, Larry Niven, Alexei Panshin, Fred Saberhagen, E. E. Smith, A. E. van Vogt, and Gene Wolfe.
Pohl also edited books for Ace, Ballantine, and Bantam Books. His name even appeared on the line of books he purchased and edited for Bantam Books during the 1970s (published as “Frederik Pohl Selections”), an example of his formidable reputation in the field. Among those books were Joanna Russ’ novel The Female Man and Samuel Delany’s wildly experimental Dhalgren.
During Pohl’s career as an agent, he represented many of the leading writers in the field, including Isaac Asimov. He also served as president of the Science Fiction Writers of America for over two years.
Pohl was recognized with a number of awards during his career. He received multiple Hugo Awards: three for If magazine while he was editor, two for short fiction, two for novels, and one fan writing award for the blog he started later in his life. He received two Nebula Awards for novels. The novel Gateway received both the Hugo and Nebula Awards for the year it was published, but also the Locus and John Campbell awards. He was the 12th author honored by the Science Fiction Writers of America with their Grand Master Award. In 1998, he was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame. A more complete list of all his awards and nominations can be found at the Science Fiction Awards Database. While most of Pohl’s work is still under copyright, a few of his early works can be found at Project Gutenberg.
The Heechee Saga
The Heechee saga started not with Gateway, which appeared in 1977, but with a 1972 novella, “The Merchants of Venus,” published a few years before. Pohl had been speculating on what might draw humans to the nasty environment we now know exists on Venus, and created a world of underground tunnels and artifacts, left behind by a mysterious race dubbed the Heechee—a race that preceded humanity by many millennia, if not by eons.
Gateway took this initial concept one step further by postulating an asteroid, overlooked because of its orbit outside the plane of the ecliptic, filled with Heechee tunnels and artifacts as well as hundreds of faster-than-light spaceships, equipped with landers, which could depart to random destinations. An international corporation is established to manage the exploration and whatever treasures are found, and human “prospectors” from Earth who can pay the price to travel to the Gateway are sent out to explore.
Through a trial and error process where more prospectors are lost than survive, missions sometimes discover great treasures, habitable planets, scientific knowledge, and most importantly, Heechee devices that can lead to new technologies. The Heechee ships are of various types and sizes. There are ships that can hold one, three, or five prospectors, which are named for their capacities. There are also armored versions of these ships that can take more punishment than others. And while the destinations are mostly unknown points in space, each ship carries a lander that can be used to explore upon arrival. Some prospectors die because the length of the random journeys exceed their food and life support capabilities; others are killed by radiation or other dangerous or extreme conditions at their destinations. Some die in attempting landings; some are killed by technologies they don’t understand. Others simply never return.
The human race, while it has ventured out into the solar system, is in dire straits. Earth is hideously overpopulated, pollution has blighted much of the planet, and global warming has increased sea levels. Desperate for food sources, humanity has resorted to direct conversion of hydrocarbons into food, with every potential source of those hydrocarbons being exploited, including mass strip mining of shale deposits. While some elites live in domed cities with advanced health care offered by an expensive “Full Medical” program, most struggle to survive in a miserable and hungry environment, and even resort to selling organs and body parts to the wealthy. The use of Heechee ships to explore the universe is an act of desperation, as humanity hopes to find technologies that will enable them to head off the catastrophe that seems inevitable.
The Heechee saga is fascinating because of the mystery it presents. It is a story of archaeological exploration and discovery, since everything about the long-vanished Heechee is shrouded in mystery. While more about the Heechee is revealed in later books, the saga is very much a story about exploring and finding mankind’s place in the universe. It also provides an unflinching view of mankind’s weaknesses, and the desperation that often drives explorers and pioneers.
There have reportedly been three efforts to bring the Heechee saga to television. Two did not succeed, but a third may still show some promise: It has some notable names attached, as Robert Kirkman and David Alpert of Skybound Entertainment have taken up the project as of 2017. There have been no dates set for airing the show, however, and no recent news on the show’s progress, but one can easily see how this story could work as a televised drama.
The first thing that struck me about Gateway was how the cover—a beautiful piece showing slick and streamlined spaceships, painted by Boris Vallejo—did not fit the story, which described mushroom-shaped utilitarian ships, and has a much grittier ethos, overall.
The book opens with a chapter in the present tense, as we find the protagonist, Robinette (or Bob) Broadhead in the midst of a grueling session with a cybernetic psychologist that he dismissively calls “Sigfrid von Shrink.” We learn that Bob lives in comfort with the wealthy under the Big Bubble in New York City, and has a summer place on the Tappan Sea. He is wealthy enough to afford Full Medical coverage, which includes not only basic medical care, but also life-prolonging treatments and transplants. But he is not happy; he is miserable, in fact. His relationships are shallow and meaningless. Somewhere in his past lies not only a discovery that brought him great wealth, but a trauma that scarred him deeply.
We switch between these psychiatric sessions and chapters written in the past tense that show Bob arriving at Gateway, meeting the colorful inhabitants of the station, and learning the ropes. Having escaped a miserable existence in the shale mines, he has won the lottery, and put his money into a ticket to Gateway—doubling down on his luck, and betting his very life on his chances as a prospector. He is initially attracted to another newcomer named Sheri, but is soon in a deep relationship with a woman named Klara, a veteran prospector who has been working as an instructor. He and Klara have something in common: They are afraid to go out on a mission (a repeat mission for her, a first for him). This is not at all surprising, as the odds for prospectors are worse than a game of Russian Roulette in which half (or more) of the chambers in the revolver are filled with cartridges. And when Bob and Klara do go out together, the enforced proximity strains their already turbulent relationship.
Bob’s psychiatric sessions feel very real, and indicate that Pohl amassed a deep knowledge of Freudian psychology and talk-focused therapy. The use of a machine as a therapist is amusing, as from the patient’s perspective, psychologists often seem robotic in the way they eschew emotion, and use repetitive statements to draw the patient out. But any amusement to be found here is on the darker side of humor, since drawing out Bob’s repressed memories is a grueling process. The sessions focus on Bob’s miserable life in the mines, a failed relationship, the early death of his mother from a lack of health care, his current vapid relationships with a string of girlfriends, his experiences on Gateway, and his turbulent relationship with Klara.
Though the novel was published in 1977, Gateway feels very modern. The vision of Earth as wasted by pollution, flooded by rising seas, and overstuffed with people is still seen today as a future that’s all too likely if mankind does not change its ways. The book presents various sexual situations involving homosexuality, bisexuality, infidelity, and polyamorous relationships in a very open and non-judgmental manner. The novel is also interspersed with snippets from the future: copies of contracts, newspaper items, personal ads, poems, letters, and computer code. These do a good job of immersing the reader in this fascinating future world; my only thought is that future editions might want to put these snippets in a different font. In the edition I read, they are presented in a format that looks like teletype printouts which, instead of appearing like glimpses of the future, seems more fitting for images from the past.
I can easily see why I did not finish the book in my younger days. Bob Broadhead is not a terribly sympathetic, or even likable, protagonist. The psychology sessions can be painful to read. And Bob has very little agency; he is more victim of circumstance than action hero. As someone who likes to read about people who fight their way out of a fray, successfully engineer a solution to a problem, or cleverly deduce the truth of a situation, the story is not one that I would have sought out on my own. I also tend to prefer romances that have a bit of wish fulfillment in them, rather than an unflinching portrayal of the ugliness that is often intertwined with passion in human relationships.
Yet the story is absolutely gripping in its escalating intensity. As the narrative switches between the present and the past, the reader spirals closer and closer to the ugly truths that Bob cannot face, drawn inexorably to the tragedy at the heart of this tale.
Gateway is not a novel for those who insist on predictability, likable characters, or happy endings. However, while I found it troubling, I have to say it is a masterpiece of the genre, written by one of the most accomplished authors at the very top of his game. In the end, I admit it: My dad was right, and this book was well worth reading.
And now I’d like to hear from you: What are your thoughts on Gateway? Or your thoughts on Pohl’s other works, and his influence on the field of science fiction?
Alan Brown has been a science fiction fan for over five decades, especially fiction that deals with science, military matters, exploration and adventure.