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Biased and superficial Science Fiction reviews

       
Gateway

Copyright 1976 by Frederik Pohl

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SOJALS rating:     
one SOJALS point one SOJALS point one SOJALS point one SOJALS point no SOJALS point    Superb (4/5)

I first read this in 1978 and most recently on the 19th October 2002.

On the surface of Venus Humanity has discovered traces of an alien civilisation: the tunnels built by the "Heechee" aliens. Next, Gateway itself is discovered. Gateway is an asteroid honey-combed by the Heechee, converted untold millennia ago into a starbase for alien space craft. There are no aliens left there, almost no alien artifacts, except there are a large number of functioning alien space craft.

The problem is that there appears to be no way to usefully control these craft, to set their course to a known destination, or to determine what course is to be followed. All that would-be pilots can do is to randomly set the controls and hope that, firstly, the craft will firstly reach an interesting destination, and secondly, and more importantly, that the craft will return, as they do automatically, before the human-provided life-support systems give out.

So spacecraft go out from Gateway, returning after days or months, with crew alive or frequently dead, and sometimes, but rarely, with treasure discovered.

Desperate adventurers from Earth travel to Gateway, and then venture out on the ships seeking their fortune. Most die, some hang on taking safer missions only when their funds are exhausted, and the very, very few make the big strike to find something of incalculable value.

Earth itself hasn't been faring so well, and is heavily over-populated. Wyoming, Utah and Colorado are given over to underground food mines. And in Wyoming, our protagonist Robinette Broadhead has been a miner in the food mines since he was kid, just like his father and mother before him. They died and that's all for which he can realistically hope. But now at the age of twenty-six he's won the lottery and he's finally got a way out. The quarter of a million dollars is just enough for a one way ticket to Gateway, and if his luck holds, he'll strike it rich.

Years later, as Robinette undergoes therapy with his AI psychoanalyst, we hear the story how he survived Gateway and became immensely rich, how he lost the women he loved and lost so many of his friends. He remembers Gelle-Klara Moynlin, Sheri Loffat, Dane Metchnikov, Shikitei Bahkin and Louise Forehand. He remembers the mistakes he made.

This is one of the great works of SF. Beautifully written and with this core of rock-solid excitement - just think of it: to risk it all, to take your life in your hands and get into a spaceship to go who knows where, into the distance, to death or to fabulous riches. In his distinctive style, Pohl took his big SF idea of Gateway and its ships and blended it with Robinette's intensely personal psychoanalysis and in the fusion he created this magnificent adventure.

Mr Pohl, very thoughtfully in my opinion, went on to write four further books in this "Heechee" universe. Make sure you read them as well: "Beyond The Blue Event Horizon", "Heechee Rendezvous", "The Annals Of The Heechee" and the apparently rather odd "The Gateway Trip" (which I'm sad to say I haven't read).

If you enjoy this book, as you surely must, read John Varley's "Steel Beach" which has some similarities and conjures up some of the same magic.

Loaded on the 31st October 2002.
    
Cover of Gateway
Cover by Boris Vallejo

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