Thursday, January 15, 2015

1978: Gateway


                After the absence of only a year, the Hugos go back into space with 1978’s Gateway.  The novel, by Frederick Pohl, takes place in a future where mankind discovers an abandoned base of a highly technologically advanced alien within an asteroid. The base comes with thousands of alien ships; many of which are still in working order. There is a catch: humans have no idea how to set the coordinates of ships so people volunteer to take the ships to their pre-set destinations. Some destinations contain riches, some contain nothing, and some ships never return. Every run is a gamble. It is a great premise that thankfully turned into a great book.
Concept can get a writer far in science fiction but it is not enough by itself. I was very excited for A Case of Conscience by James Blish (1959 Hugo Winner) because I found the concept of humanity meeting an alien species with no concept of God or Good and Evil would provide an interesting and philosophical tale. It was a great idea that fell apart in its execution. The aliens were boring and the novel extremely uneven. Gateway delivers on its premise far better. The novel has a bifurcated narrative. Odd numbered chapters are therapy sessions between the protagonist, Robinette Broadhead, and his robotic therapist, Sigfrid von Shrink (a name I both love and find ridiculous) and even number chapters detail Robinette’s (who usually goes by Rob) time on the alien base and his expeditions on the ships. The odd number chapters take place chronologically after the even number chapters and it comes clear quickly that Rob had been very successful in one his trips and is now independently wealthy. Why then would a man who has everything he could need or want to see a shrink? It is not hard to tell that Rob is hiding something from Sigfrid and possibly himself.
The structure gives the reader just enough of a hint to leave them constantly wanting more. Pohl takes his time building his characters, Rob especially. Rob is a great character because he is relatable, likable, but also petty, cowardly, and at times irritating. Besides one act late in the book which did not seem to fit his character at all, all of his actions seem organic and understandable within his character. He actions do not change just to make the plot work. I appreciated that Pohl did not give any major revelations about the aliens, called the Hechee, in Gateway. Their technology and society remains a mystery both to the humans in the book and to the reader. I read online that there are more books in the series that explain much more of this enigmatic race but I loved the mystery. I enjoyed speculating about their motives and their culture. It was well done. That being said, Pohl does not skimp on details and spends considerable time explaining how the base works, how humans have repurposed the ships, and how the payout system works for people who make discoveries. It’s a minor detail but Pohl even talks about how bathrooms are installed in the ships. Science fiction rarely deals with those kinds of mundane issues. Pohl’s universe has a very lived in feel which I enjoy. So much science fiction of the 1950s and 1960s (the Golden Age) feels a little sterile. Humanity is a bit grubby and I do not think we will stop being so in the future so I love sci-fi that acknowledges it. To use some more modern examples, I prefer the lived in worlds of the Alien movies and the original Star Wars trilogy to the shinning sterility of Star Wars prequel trilogy and Star Trek.
As much as I enjoyed it, there are some things in the book I just not like or found to be a bit of stretch. First of all is Rob’s occupation before he went into space. Rob was a food shale miner on Earth. In this future, Earth is overpopulated and impoverished and it is necessary to mine oil and shale to turn into food. While the overcrowded and starving Earth is not a new idea in science fiction (Heinlein wrote scores of books about space farmers), I found the idea of mining oil for food a bit ridiculous. It is a small bone to pick but I pick it none the less. Similarly, the gap between rich and poor in this world seems enormous to an almost comical degree. This aspect struck me when I first read the novel but now it seems more and more logical. There is also a minor event late in the novel that does not mesh well with Rob’s established character and I found off putting. It would make little sense to explain it out of context. If anyone else reads, please leave a comment with your thoughts. It would be hard to miss.
Gateway is a great combination of old and new science fiction. The old emphasis on exploration and discovery paired with more human stories with flawed and relatable characters. It makes me want to read more Pohl. I would recommend this winner to just about anyone and I would say it was one of my favorites of the decade along with The Left Hand of Darkness and The Forever War.

The next book, Dreamsnake, is by the third woman to win the Hugo Award for best novel, Vonda N. McIntyre. Will the 1970s end as well as it began? Find out soon.  

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