Gateway

Gateway
Gateway by Frederik Pohl; Del Rey

Gateway was published in 1977 by Frederik Pohl.  It won a heap of awards including the 1978 Hugo Award for Best Novel,the 1978 Locus Award for Best Novel, the 1977 Nebula Award for Best Novel, and the 1978 John W. Campbell Award.  The cover of the edition I read is an example of the awesome artwork created by John Picacio.  You should go visit his website and be on the lookout for books with his covers. His artwork is fantastic.

So, how does a novel that won all those awards (won more, was nominated for a bunch more) and have such a beautiful cover suck so much?  I am extremely disappointed in this novel.  For one thing, this was the first Pohl work I’ve read and disliking this work so much does not bode well for future forays into his writing.  Another thing is that I was really hyped to read Pohl since he is considered a “Grandmaster” of science fiction.  After all, look at all the awards this novel and it’s author have won? Surely, if there was a book that was going to rock the house – this has got to be it, right?

Well, and it was a ridiculous chore to acquire this book.  Bookstore did not have it (shock…) and I had to order it. I actually had to order it thrice, and it took about three months to get it shipped to the store.  I am not going to order books from that store location anymore.  Now, I know this has nothing to do with Pohl or Gateway – but it was a sure omen that I ignored.  And, well, it did not help that after finally getting the book in hand I was practically ravenous for reading it. And then WHAM! let down.

The structure of the book is pretty neat. I really like how there are three sections happening simultaneously.  One is the past (but told as if it is still present) which takes place on Gateway and involves all the coolest aspects of the storyline.  One part is the current time in which the main character visits his psychiatrist, Sigfrid. This is unique because the psychiatrist is a machine – a computer.  The third, and lesser, section is the miscellany from the explorations and studies related to Gateway.  These are cool and would be good fodder for the series.

The main character, Robinette Broadhead, is infinitely hateable. I do not mean that I dislike the character – I mean I pretty much despise him.  He’s a whiney, cowardly, selfish jerk.  He only goes to Gateway because (1.) he wins the lottery to do so; (2.) he’s looking for a get-rich-fast scheme to get out of his miserable life.  He has mommy issues, he has girlfriend issues, and he has money issues.  He’s consumed by guilt. Well, I guess it’s not difficult to see why he sees a shrink.

Gateway is a planet that is a portal and space-dock that was constructed by the presumably extinct Heechee alien race.  They left their ships and their tunnels and cleaned up all the rest of the artefacts.  Basically, the Heechee are a big mystery, but the Corporation finances “prospectors” to get into completely uncontrollable Heechee ships and fly out into space.  The ships control themselves to whatever destinations the Heechee have programmed into them.  Most prospectors do not return alive. Some do. Some return with information or artefacts, which the Corporation buys and pays out royalties for. Hence, the prospectors’ get-rich dreams.

I have two problems with this plot. (1.)  it makes humans seem like they have lost all of their technological and scientific ingenuity. Sure, they are attempting to reverse-engineer Heechee things, but throughout the novel, humans seem woefully clueless. (2.)  the Corporation paying out huge sums based on a random rubric for the prospectors’ efforts seems off – humanity is supposedly struggling – hungry or impoverished in general (except for the ultra-rich).  So who is buying/selling the Heechee info and items? To whom? And why? There seems to be a supply/demand issue that isn’t really thought out perfectly. There are options that Pohl could have used, but he doesn’t get into it and it leaves a little bit of a blank there.

For the majority of the book, Robinette mopes around Gateway trying to trick himself into working up the courage to go out in a ship.  His friend Shicky makes the best point in the whole novel:

You don’t need so much courage. You only need courage for one day:  just to get in the ship and go.  Then you don’t have to have courage anymore, because you don’t anymore have a choice. – pg. 233, chapter 26

However, throughout the book in the sections where Robinette is seeing Sigfrid it is presented to the reader that Robinette has become very rich.  By chapter 26, the reader still does not get the how and where. While on Gateway, Robinette blows money left and right at the bar and the casino.

The worst part of the book, which makes it hover a bit closer to a one star rating, is the R-rated sex throughout the book. No, there are not graphic detailed scenes – this isn’t (thankfully) erotica.  However, Robinette confuses sex for love, uses sex to distract himself from his cowardice, taunts Sigfrid with Freudian Oedipal comments, continually is agitated by the character Dane Metchnikov, and, once off of Gateway, runs through girls like they are paper towels.  There is one scene where Robinette gets a bit physically violent with his supposed-girlfriend, and does so in front of a young child.  And there is the last paragraph of chapter 25, which is really horrendous and actually made me want to chuck the book into a wall. Dreck.  None of this wins any points for the novel.  In fact, I mention this here, because there are not too many people to whom I would recommend this novel because of these parts. Some reviewers have commented that this is typical of 1970s mentality – I don’t think so; I have read bunches of books from the 1970s and I don’t really feel like making excuses for this dreck. I suppose the title is supposed to be punny…..

None of the marvel, grand adventure, wonder, or awe that is found in the best science fiction space-going novels.

Two stars is kind of a gift.  This is science fiction. But if someone was looking for great reads in science fiction, I would not suggest this.  Why all the awards? Maybe 1977/1978 was just a really bad year for science fiction novels.

2 stars

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3 thoughts on “Gateway

  1. This novel is my favorite book and it has become the favorite of three of my friends. I love the concept of going out on a prospecting trip with almost no control other then the initial press of the Go button. As far as Bob Broadhead, he is a jerk. Which makes him relatable to me. I would definately reccomend this book to anyone who enjoys science fiction.

  2. Dood….
    What’s wrong with talking about how real people handle their sexual and romantic lives. If it enhances the book, whats the problem. Do you think that people – men and women – don’t “go through sexual partners like paper towels” in real life? How credulous would the book have been if there was no sex on board the station. Where did that kid come from anyway… The book is excellent. Broadhead is HUMAN. We are composed of both sides, negative and positive. Some people rely heavily on the negative, while others too much on the positive. Nevertheless, to remove EITHER side is to have a partial human. A fake. Anyone reading the book could never take such a character seriously.

    “(1.) it makes humans seem like they have lost all of their technological and scientific ingenuity. Sure, they are attempting to reverse-engineer Heechee things, but throughout the novel, humans seem woefully clueless.”
    Huh – Supposing the tech is say as far advanced from where we are now to where the first humans messing with fire is. How the hell do you reverse engineer solar cells, when all you know is fire? You are assuming the tech is just within our grasp. There is nothing in the book that would leave the reader to believe that. Each time some one asks “Why”, the instructors say “We don’t know. If you find out, tell us.” Point being for any tech you need to have a starting point before you can reverse engineer things. They didn’t even know if the machines used fuel. In fact the ships could have been living entities, the function at a level so abstract we wouldn’t/couldn’t notice. If I showed an ancient Egyptian one of those plastic pant toys that wiggles around when music is played, how would he know that the thing wasn’t alive? He has no concept of a battery, of analog or digital conversion processes or microcircuitry. The more I think about your review I am wondering how old you are, a bit wet behind the ears perhaps?

    “(2.) the Corporation paying out huge sums based on a random rubric for the prospectors’ efforts seems off – humanity is supposedly struggling – hungry or impoverished in general (except for the ultra-rich).”
    You answers your own question. Think about it. If you a a multi-tirllionaire, what would you spend your money on? What could you buy that you don’t already own? Giving the prospectors 0.001% of your wealth is peanuts if one of them comes back with the formula for eternal youth or a way to grow a longer penis. Seriously. Second — they really aren’t paying the prospectors anything — only the ones that succeed get anything. Everyone else is paid in company script – which they promptly use at the company store/whore houses/casinos/etc. Look up company towns in your spare times, this is a classic setup.

    1. You start your comment with nonsense “Dood….” and then say “The more I think about your review I am wondering how old you are, a bit wet behind the ears perhaps?” I think my point is made. If we are gonna play the “guess my age game,” though, I am betting you are a typical twenty-something.

      “What’s wrong with talking about how real people handle their sexual and romantic lives. If it enhances the book, whats the problem. Do you think that people – men and women – don’t “go through sexual partners like paper towels” in real life? How credulous would the book have been if there was no sex on board the station.”

      Well, as a major defeater to your conditional assertions: it doesn’t enhance the book. Not that there is any need to go on from this point, I can indulge your opinion a bit further. What’s wrong with talking about people’s sexual lives? Again, I suppose they can do that on daytime talk-TV or with their therapist; you are asking a general question outside the framework of this book review. Do I think that the book represents a real understanding of humanity’s sexual practices? No. I think the Culture Industry wants you to think that the 6 billion humans are copulating 24-7/365 with little discretion or preference. That may be true for a small percentage, but overall, that is not true. Get your face out of the Culture Industry for five minutes….. Thirdly, how credulous would the book have been? Perfectly credulous. Is your measuring stick for literature the amount of sexual relations it contains? Humans do lots of other things besides have sex, but Pohl didn’t include all of those things. You aren’t ranting at me about how this ruins the realism of the novel…… ????

      “Broadhead is HUMAN. We are composed of both sides, negative and positive. Some people rely heavily on the negative, while others too much on the positive. Nevertheless, to remove EITHER side is to have a partial human. A fake. Anyone reading the book could never take such a character seriously.”

      What a pile of malarkey. What the hell is this “Oreo cookie” light and dark side rubbish? Once again, pull your codemonkey brain out of Star Wars and get a sufficiently nuanced understanding of human nature. Start with Aristotle. Keep reading through Alasdair MacIntyre and David Braine. When you get to Lacan and Zizek stop…. And then read all of it all over again. No one is disputing that Broadhead is human. I am saying he is a deviant, twisted human.

      “Supposing the tech is say as far advanced from where we are now to where the first humans messing with fire is. How the hell do you reverse engineer solar cells, when all you know is fire? You are assuming the tech is just within our grasp.”

      I will not assume that gap (from fire -> current day level) and there’s no compelling reason I should. In fact, if we are to assume anything it makes far more logical sense to assume the gap is narrower than wider. Secondly, I am not saying that the alien tech is near to humankind’s grasp. I am saying that at the level of industry apparent in the novel, per se, the methods these “scientists/industrialists/adventurers” are using is farcical and not commensurate with their own level of technological understanding. This also applies to your unusable example of an Ancient Egyptian and microcircuitry.

      “Point being for any tech you need to have a starting point before you can reverse engineer things. They didn’t even know if the machines used fuel. In fact the ships could have been living entities, the function at a level so abstract we wouldn’t/couldn’t notice.” And there are starting points; I can think of half a dozen without effort. Just using basic common human reasoning processes and a little of Enlightenment science – if we just need what you call a “starting point.” Further, based on your comments on what human nature is, I can see why you would be flummoxed if the ship were a living entity. If it were indeed living, it would, I believe, actually be easier to assess and explain.

      I know about the Company Store. (When I was young, we had a number of songs about the place. Railroad songs and such. Cp. The Brothers Four) Anyway, that’s not germane to the discussion. The complaint is not about the circular economy of the Company and its “employees.” The discussion is about why this venture at all? Your two examples , phallic and foolish, are not commensurate with the novel’s level of science/tech. They have android/robotic therapists and they actually still think there’s an elixir of life like magic? C’mon. You cannot play both sides of the fence. Any Corporation worth its salt would see nothing but waste and drama in this project. Even if they pursued it briefly, they would have abandoned it quickly. Capital needs a market. Even if the prospectors bring back “artefacts,” then what? What’s the market for these? A minuscule handful of humanity willing to pay for them? And THIS is the best such a robust corporation can do?

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