Thursday, 23 May 2013
Gateway by Frederik Pohl
Frederik Pohl is still alive? Wow. And won a Hugo as recently as last year, for his blog. That I will have to check out. This is a guy who has been around science fiction for a long time, as a writer and as an editor. And Gateway was my first introduction to his work. Let me just go add him to the list of authors I want to read more of.... (That's not rhetorical - it's on a Sticky on my desktop.) I will want to be reading more of his work.
Gateway is a really good book - not one that knocked me over, but one that I thoroughly enjoyed, for a whole bunch of reasons.
In a heavily overpopulated solar system, humans have discovered relics of an alien society, but only a few. One of them led people to Gateway, where Heechee ships sit with potential courses preprogrammed, but no way to really control or understand them other than picking a setting and going with it. Crew have no idea where they're going to end up, if they'll survive, or if they even have enough food or water to get where they're going and get back. So, why would anyone prospect? Well, the same reasons as the California Gold Rush - if you hit it rich, you could potentially hit it rich big time. So what if 2/3 of the ships fail to return with live crew? If you're desperate enough, it still sounds pretty appealing.
It did for Robinette Broadhead, at least until he was faced with the prospect of actually going.
Gateway is told by switching back and forth between Robin at his robot psychiatrist's and Robin as he first came to Gateway. Obviously suffering from some sort of trauma, Robin is combative with the psychiatrist he has freely chosen to see, and treats the sessions like games of oneupmanship. Knowing that something obviously goes horribly wrong, Robin's story on Gateway gains a subtle air of menace.
The book is also peppered with science lectures and ads from those buying and selling services to prospectors on Gateway. Some of these may be more important than they appear. Don't skip them. But even those that aren't directly related to the story at hand add important texture.
Pohl switches elegantly between the narrative strains, and Robin is a fascinating, if sometimes annoying, character. But I was also impressed with Pohl's female characters, all of whom are well-rounded. Not perfect, as that would be as annoying as too flawed, but real people. Not cutouts who "gurgle happily" (my least favourite descriptive word for how some science fiction writers think women talk.)
And underlying the psychological makeup of Robin and his experiences, there lurks the larger mystery. Who were the Heechee? Where did they go? Why did they take most of their stuff with them, but not some things? What the heck did they even look like?
I'm looking forward to reading more of the Heechee books, and seeing if any of those questions are answered. But I like them just fine as mysteries too.
I read this book as part of an attempt to read all the Hugo Nominees