Gateway by Frederik Pohl
|Gateway by Frederik Pohl|
|Category: Science Fiction|
|Reviewer: Andrew Lawston|
|Summary: A patient recounts his adventures in space exploration to his robot therapist in a science-fiction classic.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 304||Date: August 2006|
Gateway, by Frederik Pohl, is very much in the grand tradition of 'hard SF'. Whereas much of what gets put in the science-fiction section of bookshops is actually little more than fantasy with lasers instead of swords, Gateway is part of the Arthur C Clarke, Bradbury and Asimov school that seeks to extrapolate fantastic worlds from real current science, and examines how science and technology could affect the peoples of those worlds.
In the future, Earth is massively over-populated – and starving. Food is synthesised from hydrocarbons, and there's not enough to go around. Life is brutal and grinding poverty is everywhere.
For the bravest, however, there's an incredible opportunity – Gateway. A relic of a vanished super-race, Gateway is a huge space station filled with alien ships. Huge amounts of money are promised to brave prospectors prepared to fly off on pre-set courses in search of alien technology and artifacts.
Robinette Broadhead is such a prospector. The entire narrative is related by him, and alternates between his adventures on Gateway, and his subsequent sessions with a robotic psychiatrist.
This is an old novel, 1960s vintage, but despite the odd charming piece of retro sci-fi jargon (anything to do with computers and robots is down to 'circuits'. Circuits rule the school), the overall image of a world choked by over-population strikes more of a chord than ever. Characters' over-riding obsession is not with money as such, but with getting medical insurance – and this must also resonate with many readers.
Gateway's structure leads the book to tick along with almost metronomic regularity. Longish chapters of space adventure and exploration are interspersed with psychiatric consultations of just several pages. The reader is never given the opportunity to get bored using this format, and it also provides Pohl with a way to avoid the science-fiction writer's worst nightmare: the info-dump.
When you've built up an amazing futuristic or alien civilisation, you have to find a way of communicating the basics of it to your readers so they understand what's going on. Too often, this tends to result in characters slowing up the action for pages at a time while they tell each other things they already know. Instead, 'Rob' and his fellow prospectors learn about Gateway and the alien Heechee in training for their exploration. And to avoid labouring these sections, the psychiatrist helps fill in the rest of the blanks ('why don't you explain it to me in your own terms?').
The characters are all well-drawn, each retaining just enough mystery to remain intriguing, in this first person tale. Klara is obsessed with astrology, but stays with Rob even though he's the wrong star sign for her. She's terrified of actually taking the plunge into the unknown of a prospecting trip, and this heightens the suspense before Rob makes his first journey. The Freehand family keep one member on the Gateway station at all times, a close-knit and loving family unit who have nonetheless done terrible things to become prospectors in the first place.
But Robinette Broadhead is the most interesting character of all, even though his name sounds like a plumber's screwdriver. At the start of the book, he's seeing a hideously expensive psychiatrist who he claims to hate – but in the first of the flashbacks he's an impoverished prospector. Is he being a self-indulgent rich kid, or is there more to his counselling sessions than he even realises himself? What the novel does, cleverly, is track back through his experiences, throwing up plenty of potential causes for Rob's issues. And all the time Rob rails at the robot Sigmund, he tells the reader a lot more about himself.
The novel's introduction refers to a few aspects of the book being dated now. I spent most of the book assuming these were scientific elements that had been supplanted by the digital revolution (and indeed it does seem odd that it takes their scientists and computers so long to spot that one of the many indecipherable alien displays on the ships is actually the fuel gauge), but there's a spot of domestic violence that isn't comfortable reading in the 21st Century. Especially considering the victim's eventual reaction. Be advised.
I'm glad I read Gateway, in spite of the odd niggle. The partying prospectors are a lot of fun, particularly their endearing ignorance in the face of the alien civilisation they're discovering. The twin strands of exploration and therapy are both brought to a satisfying conclusion, and I'm surprised the book has never been filmed – the balance between the vastness of space and the mundanity of paying your rent is note-perfect.
My edition is quite a recent one. You've probably seen the series on science-fiction bookshelves, stiff covers, rounded corners to the pages and the back cover blurb aligned horizontally. While it's tempting (and plausible) to dismiss the striking design as a gimmick to charge premium rates for novels that are over forty years old, they're incredibly robust and good for packed trains in the London rush hour.
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