April 16, 2004

Catching up on some old reading

I just finished reading Frederik Pohl's Gateway (St. Martin's, 1977), possibly for the first time since high school. Pohl has always been one of my favourite SF authors, and that makes This book, the first in Pohl's Heechee Saga (comprising also Beyond the Blue Event Horizon, Heechee Rendezvous, The Annals of the Heechee, and The Gateway Trip) amongst the best of the best. It won both the Hugo and Nebula awards for best novel in its year, making it both the fan and critical choice.

In the mid-21st century, tunnels and artifacts are discovered on Venus. This discovery leads to the further, and far more lucrative, discovery of the Gateway - an asteroid orbiting the sun outside the elliptical plane, tunnelled out and housing nearly 1000 spaceships abandoned half a million years ago by a mysterious race humans have labelled the Heechee. These ships can hold one to five passengers, are fully functional, and are capable of faster-than-light travel. The problem is, no one knows how to operate the controls. Prospectors have spent their life's savings to travel to Gateway and travel in one of the ships to destinations unknown, in the hopes of making a major scientific or commercial discovery. Some do and hit it big. Most don't. Many don't come back.

Our protagonist, millionaire Robinette Broadhead, is one of the ones who hit it big. We find out two important things about him at the beginning of Gateway. First, on one of his trips he made a major discovery worth 18 million dollars. Second, he is a very screwed-up man; we meet him lying on a mat in the office of his digital shrink, Sigfrid.

Structurally, the novel's chapters alternate between Broadhead's sessions with Sigfrid, and flashbacks to Broadhead's experiences on Gateway. Unfortunately the book's structure is its major weakness. There is simply too much Sigfrid; Broadhead's appointments with the shrink could have been removed by half without harming the story. Besides, reading Freudian interpretation after interpretation of Broadhead's dreams and word choices starts to get monotonous.

It is the flashback sequences on Gateway and beyond that make this novel interesting by far. Pohl has done an excellent job of preserving the mystery of the Heechee. They are never revealed, even at the denouement of the story. Their presence is felt only through the tunnels of Gateway, the rare half-million-year-old artifacts they left behind, and their still-functional spaceships with their cryptic controls, the function of which can only be guessed at (more often than not wrongly). Interspersed throughout the book are page-long sidebars containing snapshots of life on or about Gateway: classified ads, trip reports, academic lectures. In addition to helping create a general impression of the risks of being a Gateway prospector, some of these little diversions provide clues to how the story ends, and are worth reading carefully.

If you're a hard SF fan and haven't picked up Gateway yet, you owe it to yourself. Despite its literary flaws, it's on my list of must-read SF novels.

On that note, on to the sequel: Beyond the Blue Event Horizon.