Gateway, by Frederick Pohl

gateway-by-frederick-pohlGenre: Science Fiction
Publisher: Ballantine
Published: 1977
Reviewer Rating: fivestars
Book Review by Paul S. Jenkins

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Here’s a simple story: a man wins a lottery and uses the proceeds to go to ‘Gateway’ — a kind of hyperspace jump-point — to take his chance at discovering something about the mysterious alien Heechee. If successful he could be rewarded with enough money to keep him in luxury for the rest of his life. But the chances are great he’ll be killed.

At the beginning of the book we already know that he survived, and that he’s rich. But there’s something bothering him — so much so that he’s in analysis. The book opens with one of the sessions with his AI psychiatrist.

This Hugo and Nebula award-winning novel comprises two threaded narratives: the psycho-analysis, and the events leading up to the hero’s defining moment. Essentially character-driven, the novel is a gripping read, with Pohl delivering only so much of the plot that one is always wondering what exactly happened — until the last few pages.

Life on Gateway, the hollowed asteroid left by the aliens, is effectively if sketchily evoked. Bob Broadhead, Pohl’s narrator, attends classes to learn how to operate the alien spacecraft, falls in love with another prospector, and waits for the right mission to come up — one that he thinks will have a good chance of success, or rather, one least likely to kill him. Gradually he realises that ‘waiting for the right mission’ is an excuse. He’s afraid of taking what could be an irrevocable step. During his vacillation we are given various insights into the Heechee and their ships, and the fact that for all the technological advancement of their legacy to humankind, really nothing is known about them.

The two threads, analysis and story, are further entwined with one-page mission-reports, classified ads, extracts from lectures, etc., which all serve to elucidate the essential mystery of the Heechee.

Bob Broadhead is not a particularly likable character, and one feels that to a degree he deserves his psychological torment, but that doesn’t detract from what is an excellent book.

Gateway isn’t space opera, neither is it hard SF. Nothing new, in global terms, is discovered. Humanity is not altered or enlightened. It’s a personal story about a man facing up to his fears and feelings in a typically uncertain and inconclusive manner. Like much of the best science fiction, despite the futuristic setting and alien technology, Gateway is about what it means to be human.

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