Friday, March 12, 2010

Forgotten Books: Gateway by Frederik Pohl

(This is my latest entry for Patti Abbott's Friday's Forgotten Books. See her blog for the list of other participants.)

I’ve joined a small, four-man reading group with a focus on science fiction and fantasy. We each pick a book and take a month to read it. The beauty of this arrangement is that we’re reading books we might not normally have picked up individually. The most recent book we read was Frederik Pohl’s 1977 book, Gateway. It’s one of those rare SF novels that won both the Hugo (fan-voted) and the Nebula Award (fellow-writer-voted) in the same year. Curious, we all charged into Pohl’s book.

The novel’s protagonist has an interesting name and he’s best introduced in his own voice: “My name is Robinette Broadhead, in spite of which I am male.” He lives in an undated future and he is a prospector. No, he doesn’t sift river sand for gold. Prospectors in this future hop a ride on an alien spacecraft and see where it goes and if there is anything of value at the other end. An ancient alien race, named the Heechee, took a huge asteroid orbiting our sun perpendicular to the elliptical plane, and made it a docking station for many of its spaceships. These ships have pre-programmed coordinates that they fly to and from without the need for additional steering. Humans discovered this asteroid and named it Gateway. Each ship is capable of faster-than-light travel. The catch is this: you don’t know how long the flight will be. Thus, the roundtrip may take longer than humans live or the entire trip may be a bust if there isn’t anything of value at the other end.

The book is structured with two interrelated storylines. In the present tense, Robinette is talking to his psychiatrist, an artificial intelligent computer he names Sigfrid von Shrink. He goes to weekly sessions with Sigfrid and they work through many of Robinette’s issues. The past tense story, also told in first person, Robinette describes his life’s history and how he came to be a prospector and his missions. This type of storytelling works well since each thread feeds on the other. The relationship between Robinette and Sigfrid is often contentious, a direct contract to Robinette’s sometimes milquetoast past history.

Those readers looking for descriptions of the spacecraft or the planets being explored better look elsewhere. As my reading group all commented, we don’t really have a good idea of the interior of the Heechee ships in which the humans travel. It’s just not that important and Pohl doesn’t waste time explaining it. Likewise, when Robinette arrives planet side, what he does there is glossed over. It’s not important and it’s not what the book is about. It’s about him, directly, and humankind, indirectly.

I found the first person POV sucked me in easily. In recent months, I’ve read Old Man’s War, The Forever War, and Starship Troopers, all told in first person. I think SF is served well with an intimate narrator. It makes the fantastic believable.

The verdict of the group was that we all liked it. I happen to be the one who, while I still enjoyed it, liked it the least. Now, if I were to grade the book, I’d give it a solid “B” so you can tell how low I rate the book and how high my three amigos rate it. They are intrigued to read the other three Heechee books Pohl wrote. I was curious enough to read the synopses online but I might not read the other three books. But I do think Gateway, as a stand-alone, is worth your time, both for the powerful writing and as a snapshot of SF in the mid-1970s before Star Wars hit the theaters.


Todd Mason said...

The sequels don't add much to GATEWAY...they are more about the ancillary matters you properly refer to as ancillary. Interesting wrap-up 'graph--STAR WARS didn't have much effect on literary sf...outside of the tie-in novels and other stuff that still hasn't cross-riffed too much with the rest of the literary sf community (even when some of the same writers produce both), which properly tended to receive STAR WARS as anything from a simplified if nostalgic harkening back to PLANET STORIES space opera to a remarkable dumbing-down of what sf was about...those who referred to an "evolution" from 2001 to STAR WARS, for example, were often (again, properly) dismissed as clueless.

Randy Johnson said...

This one was the best of the series. maybe a harsh thing to say, but that's the way I felt after reading them.

Todd Mason said...

Not at all, Randy...this book was a personal breakthrough for Pohl...the others were, in comparison, just light entertainments and loose-end ravellers. JEM and THE YEARS OF THE CITY were Pohl back to business.

George said...

I'd probably give GATEWAY a "C+" even though I like Fred Pohl's work (especially with C.M. Kornbluth).

Anonymous said...

I might consider MAN PLUS to be more of a breakthrough than GATEWAY.