Gateway (Frederik Pohl)

gatewaynovelThis first novel in the Heechee Saga won no less than 4 awards, and its easy to see why so many judges were impressed. Despite the fact that most of Freud’s methods and theories are no longer used by competent psychologists, the use of his theories in this book does not detract from its quality. Generally, it just feels quaint. Pohl’s ability to manipulate large amounts of plot arc at a surgical level is incredible and he creates vivid, realistic seeming worlds with real, living characters – none of the Isaac Asimov cardboard men here.

Essentially the story is about a time in the distant future where overpopulation and over consumption of resources have left humans in a regrettable state, but not without some promise. Oil and minerals are mined and then somehow synthetically turned into food. Also interplanetary colonization has spread the burden out somewhat, but life further on (or rather in Venus) and Mars is no picnic. One way out is to become a prospector on Gateway. Gateway (and Gateway two) is an ancient alien spaceport, complete with a fleet of ancient spaceships that are pre-programmed to go places. The trouble is that scientists cannot figure out the big picture on how or why the ships go where they go and whether or not they will come back. The prospecting comes from taking a ship out and seeing what they can find.

The alien artifacts could be worth millions if they are useful for science. Or a prospector could go out and come back with nothing, or they might not come back at all. Mankind is in desperate shape when we discover the alien space station long ago abandoned. Through the ships left in dock we can explore the far reaches of the galaxies, the only problem is we don’t know how to operate the ships. Enter the brave space pioneers that are willing to risk their life in making these incredible journeys with only a percentage of hope of returning. Our protagonist, Robinette (what a thrillingly heroic name!) is nothing special, just your average down-on-his luck prospector that is at the end of his rope with nothing to lose but his life.

He decides to make a last ditch gamble at striking it rich. He’s not that likable, which is I why I liked him. The plot is revealed in layers that are masterfully connected together to produce suspense and keep you interested. The interplay between the main character and his A.I. Psychiatrist is very rich. All this by itself would make a good sci-fi story but Pohl adds a psychological twist that makes it even better. Science fiction writers often make the best visionary prophets, and he has done an admirable job with overpopulation and Malthusian ideas about food. Plus, he has (in a book written in 1977) enunciated our society’s apprehension about health care as well. This is a good solid read.

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