The astronaut at the heart of Frederik Pohl’s ‘Gateway’ finds himself at the mercy of a perilous but indifferent universe

March 28, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
March 28, 2015

Frederik Pohl’s 1977 novel, Gateway, which was originally serialized in the magazine Galaxy, is a landmark work of science fiction. It swept all of the genre’s top honors, the Hugo, Nebula, Locus and Campbell awards.

The book contains two tales, which appear in alternating chapters. They’re both narrated by Robinette Broadhead, and each covers a different time period. The odd-numbered chapters revolve around Broadhead’s weekly appointments with “Sigfrid von Shrink,” which is what the narrator calls his computer psychotherapist. This Broadhead, who lives in an exclusive, domed borough of New York City, is a fabulously wealthy retiree. His main pursuits are bedding women and turning the tables on Sigfrid. Sometimes these activities converge, such as when he romances a computer specialist who knows how to bypass key parts Sigfrid’s programming.

The main topic of discussion — or evasion, given Broadhead’s reluctance to engage any subject that makes him uncomfortable — is related in the even-numbered chapters. These are the experiences of young Broadhead, a cash-strapped Wyoming food miner on an overcrowded, far-future Earth. At least, that’s Broadhead’s unpleasant lot in life until he wins the lottery. The 26-year-old immediately spends the bulk of his $250,000 prize on a one-way ticket to an alien asteroid, where he hopes to find unimaginable wealth as a prospector.

His destination is an ancient outpost called Gateway. It was built by the Heechee, a mysterious alien species that has been extinct — or at least absent — for many millennia. Little is known about this race, including what happened to them. No other living intelligent alien life has ever been found.

Broadhead struggles to describe his simultaneous elation and confusion upon arriving at Gateway:

Like a menu in the best restaurant in the world, when somebody else is going to pick up the check. Like a girl you’ve just met who likes you. Like an unopened gift.

The things that hit you first on Gateway are the tininess of the tunnels, feeling tinier even than they are because they’re lined with window boxy things of plants; the vertigo from the low gravity, and the stink. You get Gateway a little bit at a time. There’s no way of seeing it all in one glance; it is nothing but a maze of tunnels in the rock. I’m not even sure they’ve all been explored yet. Certainly there are miles of them that nobody ever goes into, or not very often.

That’s the way the Heechees were. They grabbed the asteroid, plated it over with wall metal, drove tunnels into it, filled them with whatever sort of possessions they had — most were empty by the time we got there, just as everything that ever belonged to the Heechees is, all over the universe. And then they left it, for whatever reason they left.

There are two reasons why prospectors go to Gateway in hopes of making their fortunes. One is that the Heechee left behind nearly a thousand ships. Their controls are poorly understood, but it’s possible for humans to select a course, launch from Gateway and then travel…somewhere.

The missions are dangerous. Some starships return with dead and wounded crew, either because of perils encountered at the destination or because the crew ran out of food en route. Some starships never return at all. The biggest vessels can only fit five people, and there are no bathing facilities, so the missions tend to combine a low degree of privacy with a high degree of boredom, grunginess, frustration and danger.

Once in a great while, however, the prospectors find a piece of equipment that unlocks new powers and capabilities for humanity. Those discoveries, of course, are richly rewarded — which is why Broadhead used the bulk of his lottery winnings to travel to Gateway, and which is why other people literally sell their own organs so their relatives can afford tickets to the alien asteroid.

“You know how desperately the human race needs what we can give them,” one of Gateway’s administrators tells Broadhead. “New technology. New power sources. Food! New worlds to live in.”

Broadhead gets this lecture because he has a problem: He’s afraid to die. Once he finishes his training and becomes qualified to be a prospector, he continually puts off signing up for a trip in the Heechee ships.

Thanks to the alternating narratives, the reader knows that, one way or another, Broadhead will not only break through his fears but make a huge score somewhere along the way. The reader also knows that the prospector will suffer a tremendous loss. Early on, Sigfrid and Broadhead refer to his last conversation with his girlfriend, Gelle-Klara Moynlin, a.k.a. Klara. It’s not clear what happened to her, but it was obviously something serious…

I liked the fact that Pohl’s protagonist suffers from cowardice — not only does it humanize the hero, it seems like a realistic reaction to the perils of prospecting aboard a Heechee ship. But I found the segments with the computer therapist to be a bit dull (even if these do serve to foreshadow key events in the earlier narrative). Some aspects of the therapy, including the revelation of Broadhead’s latent homosexual tendencies, may have been quite daring in the 1970s; today, this just seems anachronistic more than anything else.

Gateway is the second story in Pohl’s Heechee saga, following the series’ origin in a 1972 novella, “The Merchants of Venice.” I’ve read one or two of Pohl’s Heechee tales, and I’ve liked them; indeed, I love the universe that Pohl limns in young Broadhead’s Gateway portions of this book. However, I doubt that anyone who’s not already a science fiction fan will find Gateway particularly compelling or enjoyable.

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