2010.19 – Gateway – Frederik Pohl (1977)
As I have been recently reminded, I am a sucker for 1970s era sci-fi psychological thrillers. They’re like the earnest outward-looking sf of the 40s and 50s, combined with the more cynical and humanist stuff that came later; unabashed absurdism mixed with honest existential contemplation. Also there are usually some good sex scenes. All of this can be found in Frederik Pohl’s iconic Gateway, which is at times uneven in its pacing and narrative structure, but overall works very well as a tense and credible musing on the effects of space exploration on the human animal.
The book is set at some undefined point in Earth’s future and the bare bones of the plot are difficult to describe without spoiling anything, but are also almost simplistically didactic: rich people live in literal bubbles, and the rest of the population spend their time in what amounts to tar pits, shoveling shit for the good of humanity.
For most people, the only means of escape from a life of unblinking poverty and grime is to join in the commercial exploration/exploitation of the galaxy, via the relics of a long-extinct alien species (the most important such relic being the Gateway, an asteroid-cum-space station, abandoned for tens of millions of years before being discovered and reused by humans).
As for the exploration itself (or “prospecting”) : imagine a mining company blindfolding you and throwing you into a pit; if you’re lucky, the pit is shallow and you continue to live (and earn a living wage). If you’re very lucky, the pit is shallow and full of gold, and you get to live while being suddenly rich. In most cases, though: splat.
The bulk of the book is taken up with life on Gateway, and our protagonist Bob’s travails as he engages in exploratory trips therefrom. Interspersed with the Gateway chapters, we see Bob in the future, made rich from what we are led to believe were some very successful prospecting trips, as a psychiatric patient trying to deal with some very troubling repressed memories.
It is from these future narrative chapters that the book both benefits and suffers. Bob’s interactions with his robot psychiatrist Sigfrid serve as comic relief, as the robot becomes increasingly creepy and absurd in his methods. The narrative “Gateway” chapters are informed by the progress (such as it is) that Bob makes with Sigfrid, uncovering memories he wanted to keep locked away. As Bob reveals things to Sigfrid in the future, Bob as narrator of the main action seems to become more self-aware, and the plot is likewise revealed incrementally, culminating in some nicely unexpected tidbits as the book climaxes.
As effective as the intermediate chapters are (and as entertaining as I found the robot Sigfrid, who at one point conducts a session in the form of a giant teddy bear, with which Bob is supposed to cuddle as he talks about his feelings toward his mother, et al.), they as often as not distract the reader from the main action, and seem to bog down the book at least as much as they advance the plot.
(Like the robot psychiatrist chapters, another device employed by Pohl with only marginal success are the ephemera scattered generously throughout the book – classified ads, ships logs, excerpts of lectures – which contribute to the reader’s knowledge of the setting, but whose placement in the middle of chapters is extremely distracting. At times I found myself skipping them entirely so as not to have to stop in the middle of a scene, or even a sentence, to read them.)
Pohl’s success in Gateway comes as a result of presenting a well-wrought futuristic story, and combining that with the immediate, visceral effects that space travel has on humans. Gateway and the extinct alien species are fully realized plot elements, but without the human element (fear, sex, longing, drugs, sacrifice, betrayal, and the rest of the human reaction to living in an alien environment) it would make for a boring book. As it stands, I enjoyed it very much, despite the slightly flawed narrative structure. A recommended book, thoroughly deserving of the accolades it won.