Gateway by Frederik Pohl (1977)

gateway-frederik-pohl

Gateway was highly acclaimed when it came out in 1977. It won awards for best novel from Hugo, Nebula, and the Locus poll. After reading it, I can say it still remains a good book, a page turner which combines space exploration and alien relic hunting with the inner psychological exploration of the protagonist, who is a profoundly flawed and yet recognisably human individual.

The way it weaves these two distinct narratives is the engrossing aspect about the book. Gateway is a spaceport built and abandoned by an elusive and mysterious race of aliens 500,00 years ago. After human discovery, it is administered by a corporation who wish to unlock its technological and interstellar secrets via its remaining group of alien-built space ships. This is a risky but potentially lucrative business which attracts ‘prospectors’ far and wide from an impoverished Earth. The novel is told from the perspective of one of these prospectors, Robbie, and through him we see the day-to-day life within the Gateway settlement.

Inter-weaved with this relic hunting story is a second narrative, where Rob is seeking help from a robotic psychiatrist. By this caricature of Sigmund Freud the vaguely referenced and horrific events of the Gateway narrative are unpacked and elaborated on by methods of subtle questioning and Freudian dream analysis, and so by the end of the novel we realise the sources of Robbie’s mental problems (which are myriad; his profound guilt, sexual hangups, and mother issues.) In this way, Gateway is largely a character study, rather than an all-out action thriller or space opera, as one might surmise from Boris Vallejo’s cover.

Gateway is thereby an examination of the kind of men who can be found in dangerous frontier societies; men who run away from home and family (and themselves) in seek of either wealth, adventure, or distraction, people who are capable of momentary acts of bravery while living profoundly frightened and insecure daily lives. These psychological explorations add a human interest to the tales of alien relic hunting and exploration, which in themselves are depicted more engagingly than in something like Clarke’s Rendezvous With Rama. The sense of the thin veil between life and death, success and failure, is emphasised throughout.

All of these concerns are plotted so that the book is neither too prosaic or sorrowful. The tone is earthy, and buoyed by the variously officious, sexy, gregarious, and sagacious presences of its minor characters. Furthermore, Pohl’s occasional insertion of Gateway Corporation mission reports, rosters, contracts, memorandums and classifieds is noteworthy, an eye-catching device which embellishes the sense of the wider life in the spaceport outside of the narrator’s POV.

Overall, then, Gateway is a well-balanced work of SF which combines the vicarious pleasures of space travel and the New Age preoccupation with internal landscapes.

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