Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Gateway by Frederik Pohl

Posted by Simcha 4:49 PM, under | 10 comments

Although it's been over a year now since I first challenged myself to start reading science fiction, I still find myself intimidated by the hard core stuff. To me, Gateway by Frederik Pohl falls into this category because it's written by a top scifi author and it has a cover featuring spaceships shooting at each other in outer space. That's heavy-duty scifi stuff.

But when I recently found myself in possession of a copy of Gateway I thought it couldn't hurt to take a look inside, just to test the waters. To my surprise, I was immediately drawn into the story by the casual narration style and before I knew it I was half-way done with the book. While at first I was compelled to keep reading by the easy writing style- so different from many of the other scifi that I've tried- I was soon caught up by the thrill of the story and I could barely bring myself to put the book down, until I finished it all.

Bob Broadhead has always dreamed of being a prospector; of flying a Heechee ship in search of the valuable relics hidden on far off-planets- all that remains of the mysterious Heechee race. But becoming a prospector is expensive and far beyond Bob's means, so he has to settle for following in his parent's footsteps and working in the food mines.

The life of a miner is hard and by the time Bob is twenty-six he has lost both his parents to the mines. Bob has little hope that his life will get any better until the day he wins $250,000 in the lottery, which he immediately spends on a ticket to Gateway.

Gateway is the place to go for anyone wanting to make their fortune through prospecting. It’s the asteroid where the Heechee ships were first discovered and it's there where training and accommodations are provided for those who risk their lives in search of Heechee treasure. The problem is that no one knows exactly how the aircrafts work. Each ship appears to be pre-programmed to a particular destination but the destinations can only be determined once a prospector has traveled there. If a prospector is lucky he will be brought to an undiscovered planet full of Heechee relics, for which he will be awarded enough money to retire for life. The unlucky never make it back at all, or at least not alive.

Bob is excited to finally fulfill his dreams of becoming a prospector, that is- until he gets a look at the remains of a ship from a failed mission. The bodies of the prospectors, mysteriously ripped apart, cause Bob's excitement to dampen and suddenly he isn't sure if this is what he wants at all.

As his friends and fellow prospectors eagerly set off into the unknown, in fulfillment of their own dreams, Bob haunts the tunnels of Gateway wracked by fear and indecision. Should he give up his dreams of glory when he is already so close or risk his life in a possibly deadly mission?

Years later, Bob is facing the consequences of what he experienced at Gateway and the events which led to the final and horrifying trip that brought him the fame and fortune he had longed for.

Gateway starts off with a counseling session between Bob and his robotic psychiatrist whom he calls Sigfried. As Sigfried attempts to get Bob to talk about the painful events of his past, Bob reluctantly recounts the story of what brought him to Gateway and what happened there. The story switches between Bob's conversations with Sigried, and his own recollection of events. At times I was frustrated by this because the counseling sessions keep hinting at events that have not yet come to pass, so I knew to expect certain things to happen, which I didn't like. But otherwise it was a good way to break up the intensity of the story, by inserting conversations between Bob and psychiatrist.

As the story progressed I came to like Bob less and less, due to his behavior and interactions with some of the other characters, but at the same time I was able to sympathize with his plight. The intensity of emotion in the story is tangible, as each character sets off on a mission that could end in either glory or a horrible demise. I was on edge throughout the story, waiting for Bob to finally go on a mission of his own, but also fearful of how it would end.

I did have a few doubts about some aspects of the story, such as the fact that after hundreds of years, so little information has been discovered about the workings of the Heechee aircrafts. If the world has advanced to the point where people can reside on other planets, as they do in this book, then technology must be sophisticated enough to have developed robots that could have been used for experimentation with the aircrafts. And such robots could also have traveled on the missions instead of people, in order to discover where the ships go to.

I thought it was interesting, though, that we don't actually learn anything in the story about the Heechees themselves or their history. I actually felt quite comfortable with this part of the story because a number of fantasy books that I've read recently have similar themes, of past alien cultures that have left remains for the current human race to discover. But I do believe Pohl talks more about the Heechees in his sequel to Gateway, which I am certainly planning on reading.

One of the things I liked best about Gateway was that I actually understood everything that took place. The science part of the book was very low-key and I wasn't required to know any scientific terms or understand any complicated technological equipment, which is what often intimidates me about science fiction books. Gateway was a pleasantly easy book to read, which I really appreciated.

Gateway turned out to be a really fantastic book that I would recommend to anyone looking for a thrilling literary adventure. If you are new to science fiction then this is an excellent book to start with, though I think even people who don't read scifi would really enjoy it as well.


That's funny, a friend of mine just recommended this book and I've been waiting to get it from the library. Thanks for the review, now I have to read it. :)

Oh, I thought you were old hat with the hard core sci-fi. I have the same issues as well that keep me from reading more of the genre - the really complicated world-building and too much science. Sounds like this is the book for an infrequent sci-fi reader like me.

That book sure does sound good. I am going to have to check it out. Glad you're deciding to check out Sci Fi and enjoying it!

Nice review
I am such a newbie sci-fi reader and I always go for the heavy philosophical ones or books like that lol

I haven't read that much Pohl yet but of the ones I have read this one is my favourite. He's written some very good short stories too though.

not my cup of tea but i always like reading your sf reviews. and that is one awesome cover :)

Hey Bryce, haven't seen you around in a while ;) You should definitely read Gateway, it was a great book.

Stephanie: Nah, I'm a total scifi newbie. And the fact that I really don't like the science aspect of the genre that much makes it a bit challenging to find scifi books that I really enjoy. That's why I get so excited every time I do find one. And I like being able to say I read scifi, I think it makes me seem smarter :)

BryStearns: I highly recommend this book. As I said in my comment above, I find it somewhat challenging to find scifi books that I can easily enjoy so I get really excited when I do find one.

Blodeuedd: That's really brave of you. The heavier scifi books, while they can be good, take me a long time to get through. It took me ages to get through The Left Hand of Darkness, even though its not that long.

Val : I haven't read anything else of Pohl's yet but now I'm really eager to try more of his books, specifically the sequels to Gateway. I just hope they are as good as this one was.

Michelle: Well if you ever decided to try some scifi, this would be a great book for you to start with.

Yeah, I've been a bit busy. Sorry. :)

Because law school wasn't busy enough I signed up for a trial competition. So...much...work...should...be...working...now.

Great review! I'm adding it now on my list :)

Gateway is one of my favorites. I particularly like the fact that Pohl doesn't get distracted or distract the reader with too many details about aliens or technology. This helps us stick to the story, which by any standard is a doozy.

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