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When Fred Pohl passed away last year, I knew which of his novels I wanted to read most to remember him by: Gateway, winner of the Hugo, Nebula, Locus, and John W. Campbell awards. Truth be told, I’m lukewarm at best towards Pohl’s post-’50s writing, so I figured the list of accolades would make Gateway a safe bet in my quest to find a Pohl novel I liked. It’s arguably Pohl’s most famous novel, starting off as a 1976 Galaxy serial before it went on to dominate the awards. Plus, the TV rights were purchased not too long ago so its popularity may continue to rise if the TV series comes out and is a hit.

Ballantine/Del Rey - 1978 - Boris Vallejo.

Ballantine/Del Rey – 1988 – Boris Vallejo. The cover that has lasted for some thirty years.

They called it the Heechee Lottery, the great gamble where humans would hop into centuries-old extraterrestrial spaceships left behind by a vanished race, riding one off on autopilot to unknown coordinates. Some would come back rich beyond measure in alien artifacts. Most came back dead—friend by radiation, crushed by pressure, starved, asphyxiated, the corpses mucking up the empty spaceships. Some didn’t come back at all. But it’s that slim chance for greatness that drove a young food miner named Robinette Broadhead to gamble his lottery money on a ticket to Gateway, the planetoid base where the Heechee spaceships resided.

But we already know Bob’s fate: here he is, recalling the past from the mat in the office of his A.I. pyschiatrist, whom Bob calls Sigfrid von Shrink. Bob is a man withering away but unable to admit it, drowning in the past much as he drowns himself in booze and women and wealth, relying on his prestigious Full Medical to replace the organs he burns out. And as he recounts his trips—three of ’em—out into the black, three gambles in Heechee spaceships wagering his life for wealth, we begin to see the forces that changed him, the things that are eating away at his body and soul.

The background idea I find brilliant—Gateway, a space station where humans struggle to comprehend alien technology, where unlucky explorers brave certain death to bring back more artifacts we can misidentify and re-purpose. There’s a lot of Roadside Picnic in this world, where the aliens are an unknown other and even their junk baffles human scientists. We never see the Heechee—I’m not even sure why they were named that—but we see the human characters struggle after their millenia-old remains in the hopes for a sizable paycheck. It’s a grim world; even on Earth, overpopulation and a lack of arable land has created miserable conditions for those who aren’t wealthy beyond measure, as Bob’s upbringing in the Wyoming food mines shows.

SFF Audio - 2009

SFF Audio – 2009

It is very much a novel of its time—the free love and the drugs screams 1960s California, and its views on gender and sexuality are beyond obsolete. There’s a lot about Bob’s libido in here, though that could be cast as part of his personality, trying to cover-up one of the novel’s big reveals (and sleeping with everything that moves so he can try to forget the novel’s other big reveal). Moreso, the psychological and psychiatric elements scream 1970s to me, as Bob jokingly uses psychobabble to irritate Sigfrid the A.I., programmed to dislike it when patients self-diagnose. The psychiatry makes up about half the book, so I figured to bring it up early. There’s some moments of adventure, pure terror, and tongue-in-cheek humor, but this is not an adventurous space opera: it’s a psychological character study.

Bob Broadhead is not a likeable protagonist—to put it mildly, he’s a kind of asshole—yet there’s something about him that intrigued me. Shades of Citizen Kane: a man who has everything he wants, who has clawed and scrambled his way up the social strata, yet who isn’t satisfied with the luxurious life he’s built. And for good reason: he had emotional and psychological issues before heading out to Gateway, and his time out on the rugged frontier exacerbated his existing issues. Despite what the world-building and exploration themes may imply, Gateway is a psychological novel that explores the human mind—that of Bob Broadhead, quite literally his fears and his dreams, his relationships and the scars they left behind.

Pohl has a knack for unlikable protagonists—case in point, see Jem‘s case of unlikable, arrogant characters; even my least favorite aspect of The Space Merchants is that the hero never seems to learn the error of his ways. Bob Broadhead was the first of Pohl’s characters that I found sympathetic despite how despicable he is—he’s a deep and human character. His flaws are not without cause, even though they made me want to give him a good solid beating; you get the feeling that subconsciously he wants to better himself, though he’s consciously he’s actively resisting it. It’s a very complicated situation; I hate him and feel for him at the same time. And it’s that multi-faceted nature that makes him feel so real to me.

That cool setting I was just going on about is a perfect assistant, helping to make the world bitter. Life on Earth is grimy and dreadful; life in space is full of claustrophobia and the certain possibility of imminent death. Pohl whips up some capable dread and despair in this one, a Kierkegaardian angst of galactic proportions. The novel is rife with documents that paint this dreary universe’s existence: snippets of life on Gateway in the form of classified ads to after-action reports recounting what went wrong with each lander’s trip; lines of code that capture Bob’s conversation with Sigfrid. Each one adds another small layer to the rich background, painting a depiction of humanity struggling to learn from the incomprehensible Heechee. It’s stark and realistic, almost frighteningly so.

Random House/Del Rey - 2004 - John Picacio.

Random House/Del Rey – 2004 – John Picacio.

The biggest turn-off I can see for readers is that Bob makes several horrible choices in life, things that scarred him and burdens he must carry, which is the crux of the novel. He’s not a character you’ll end up liking, so if having a likable protagonist is a requirement for you, this is not your book. You don’t read Gateway to like Bob; you read Gateway to know him. It’s an important distinction that will go a long way towards explaining if this is a novel you’ll like or not. Gateway is a slow and tedious examination of Bob Broadhead, an examination of his guilt and misery. It’s a powerful book with an ocean of thought behind it, a complex work that makes you ponder.

So I’ve found a Pohl novel I can, in good faith, recommend as something I enjoyed. As mentioned, there are enough elements that I can understand why someone won’t like it—yes, there’s a lot of sex and psychobabble and the protagonist is a real damn jerk. But I was impressed by the depth of the setting and the honest realism of the characters, as well as the novel’s many thought-provoking elements. There’s so much to talk about with this novel, this review only scratched the surface. My recommendation is for you to go and read it for yourself.