I just finished Frederik Pohl’s multi-award winning book Gateway (1977), and I will admit I almost put it down a couple of times, but I’m glad I didn’t.
In Pohl’s future the world is on the verge of collapse. Life is not good for anyone; anyone that is not rich. The wealthy enjoy easy lives with Full Medical (an obvious status of their wealth) and with little to do but pleasure themselves. For the rest of the some twenty-three billion souls on Earth there is little hope beyond the food mines or other menial jobs. However there is hope, if you can manage the cost, you can buy a ticket out to Gateway, a remnant Heechee asteroid, and risk your life in a ship you can’t control to a destination you don’t know. If you’re lucky, very lucky, you might find something of value that the Gateway Corporation can market.
Robinette Broadhead is one of the lucky ones. After winning the lottery he buys passage to Gateway to strike it really rich.
The action in Gateway switches between present day discussions between Robinette and is computer psychiatrist, Sigfrid von Shrink, and Robinette’s life on Gateway and in those mysterious Heechee ships. Interspersed are various reports, bulletins, and technical documents that reveal the Gateway universe in greater detail.
Very early on in reading Gateway I came to dislike Robinette Broadhead. He is a callow and cowardly character with no truly redeeming aspect. Robinette spends most of his time pursuing his more animal appetites; a trait that seems to be common among most of the characters. In spite of this Pohl has created a story that draws you in and you cannot help but continue to read.
It’s probably the discussions with Sigfrid that help keep the reader interested in the story. You get little glimpses of the future Robinette, leading you to want to find out what happened in his past.
Pohl has given us a future in which humanity cannot take care of itself. Like a child we need outside help for our very survival. It is the alien Heechee technology that provides that help, limited as it is, but it is enough to keep everything going. In Gateway we are doomed to failure without it.
Pohl’s writing is concise and without a lot of flowery descriptions. I would say, like Gateway itself, the style is almost utilitarian. However, there is also a touch of humour in Pohl’s writing, black humour to be sure, but without it Gateway would be overwhelmingly dystopian and bleak.
While is sounds as if I may be running Gateway and Frederik Pohl down, be sure that is not the case. Gateway is an excellent example of good writing and storytelling. A good story, any good story, should elicit an emotional response as well as entertain. For me Pohl did both of these things.
While much of the technical aspects of the story seem outdated (this was written in the 1970’s remember) Gateway is still an engaging and well written piece of science fiction. If you’ve never been to Gateway I would recommend that you give this book your attention.