My runthrough of winners of the Hugo Award for Best Novel reaches 1978 with 'Gateway' by one of the old guard of science fiction, Frederik Pohl. He's one of the biggest names in the genre, not only as an author but as a literary agentthe only one Isaac Asimov ever hadand as a magazine editor, most obviously 'Galaxy' in the sixties. It's a fascinating novel, but one that made me think back four years to 1974, when Arthur C. Clarke won the same award with 'Rendezvous with Rama'.
'Rama' is a high concept science fiction novel that sees the human race in a sort of first contact that isn't quite because we find alien technology, but no actual aliens. Rama is initially thought to be an asteroid, but it turns out to be a gigantic spacecraft travelling through our solar system and we're stuck with a brief window of opportunity to explore it and learn what we can before it's gone again. As a high science fiction concept, it's magnificent, but as a novel, it's too involved with its concept to remember to ground it in humanity. With 'Gateway', Pohl ably addresses that problem.
The central concept behind Gateway is just as magnificent as Rama and with even more possibility, but it's static, giving us the ability to explore it at our leisure. It's a space station, hidden within an asteroid by the mysterious and absent Heechee race at an unknown time aeons in the past. We're in a future where we've gone to space and we're exploring Venus and it's there that someone discovers a spacecraft that, when activated, takes him to Gateway.
And Gateway is a glorious discovery. There are no Heechee there either, but there are a heck of a lot more ships there, all of which appear to be in as pristine a condition as they were when the Heechee left. There's a lot we don't understand about them, like how they work and how to control them, but we've learned how to get into them and trigger them to move. They all seem to be pre-programmed with directions, taking whoever's daring enough to stay inside when they press the metaphorical go button to a location presumably important to the Heechee.
As you might imagine, given the timeframes involved, this is a dangerous business. We're guessing that the Heechee liked to visit places of astronomical interest but such places could be observation points for suns about to go supernova and, in the incalculable time that's passed since, they're now gone and the radioactive debris makes them a deadly place for a human being to visit. Many people die on these journeys. Others seem to go nowhere in particular, making journeys to them worthless, but some take us to habitable planets containing the remnants of civilisations and technology that makes any such visitors incredibly rich.
Enter the human angle. Earth may have progressed massively in some ways, but it's an overcrowded planet where many are poor and starving. The possibility inherent in taking a ride in a Heechee ship is enough to ensure a long line of willing participants, however dangerous a gamble with their lives it might be. And we focus on one of those, Robinette Broadhead, who's working to farm edible slime out of shale, but wins enough money in a lottery to get him to Gateway and into that line.
As if to provide a human parallel to the mysteries of Gateway, the Heechee and what technology we have gradually found of theirs, Pohl makes Broadhead a mystery too. We know from the outset that he goes out on a Heechee ship, finds something amazing and becomes an insanely rich man, because that's what he is in the therapy sessions he has with a robot psychiatrist he dubs Sigfrid von Shrink. Those sessions begin with the book and alternate in the narrative with Broadhead's life on Gateway, where he finds himself frozen with fear at what might happen if he gets into a Heechee ship.
I didn't like the therapy sessions very much, especially early on, because they seem to get in the way of the story at hand and slow it down. In every chapter on Gateway, Pohl progresses our knowledge forward, not just of Broadhead but of the culture growing up on the space station and the universe we're starting to glimpse. It's amazing frontier stuff and I was hooked, but my exploration of it was continually interrupted by the narrative going back to a rich man doing everything he can to avoid solving his deep-seated problems that we don't know about yet.
Pohl also throws in ephemera, just single page stuff, like want ads on Gateway or other snippets of background, but at least they overtly build our knowledge. We don't think the therapy sessions do that, until a point, somewhere late in the novel, where they do take over as the primary narrative, explaining what we've learned in the Gateway sections. Yes, Broadhead goes out and he comes back alone, though we don't know why. There, Sigfrid von Shrink serves his purpose and we finally get a big picture, not of the Heechee, because most of our questions about them remain unanswered, but about Broadhead and his part in that wider story.
There are other characters that have meaning within the story but much of their purpose is to keep everything human. It wouldn't surprise me if Pohl, already a renowned author and editor, was very aware of the problems 'Rendezvous with Rama' had and set out to fix them. If so, many of the little sub-plots and individual stories that intersect with Broadhead's are there to humanise it and keep it grounded in people even as we literally explore the stars through these dangerous journeys in a fleet of Heechee ships that hold one, three or five people on trips that average 45 days each way. As much as I adore the high concept, it's always about people.
Another key factor is that, while we continually learn, both we the readers and we the human race in this particular future, we're not given all the answers. We're used to finding stuff, figuring out how it works and bending it to our will. Here, Pohl answers some questions, but leaves even more open. We know these ships have incredible faster than light drives, but we haven't even figured out a way to open them without blowing them up. We've learned how to make them go, but we're still unable to choose where. We can't even tell what the Heechee looked like. While there is a well-defined story that's started and ended, this is also an amazing beginning ready to be expanded.
With the caveats I mentioned above, I liked this a great deal. Partly, it's a take on 'Rendezvous with Rama' with all its fundamental problems addressed, which is refreshing for me and this project, as I get to see a year's progression every month. Had I read these books a year apart, as the Hugo voters did, I think I'd still have seen that, but it was pretty obvious with that timeframe slimmed down to four months. Partly, though, it's just a grand science fiction story, a futuristic take on the good old frontier tales of the American west or the Yukon, with mere gold replaced by alien artifacts and the mysteries of an alien race who reached a stage far beyond our technology but who are nonetheless long gone. Phrasing it like that, I was always going to love this one.
Pohl had technically introduced the Heechee before this novel, in a novella called 'The Merchants of Venus', but I haven't read that. I probably have it on the shelf, so I'll dig it out. This marks the first novel in the Heechee Saga, to be followed by four more: 'Beyond the Blue Event Horizon', 'Heechee Rendezvous', 'The Annals of the Heechee' and 'The Boy Who Would Live Forever', a fixup novel from at least three short stories. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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