Gateway is Fred Pohl’s 1977 novel about a futuristic gold rush for alien technology and the crushing psychological damage that results. Gateway Station is a Big Dumb Object, that classic SF trope of a huge piece of abandoned alien technology with inexplicable properties and extraordinary potential for exploitation.
In this particular case, a mysterious race known as the Heechee have left behind a space station full of wormhole-capable transport capsules with which to access the wider universe. The problem for humanity is that the Heechee navigation systems are apparently unfathomable; the human crews are gambling that each new destination will reveal a rich lode of alien technology rather than certain death.
Bob Broadhead is one such futuristic prospector who lucks his way to Gateway, where he is just one of many hoping to escape the grinding poverty of Earth by striking it rich on one of the outbound Heechee capsules. Once the terrible reality sinks in of the spectacular death rate of capsule crews, he begins to procrastinate, until poverty and self-recrimination push him into risky expeditions.
The story alternates between Broadhead’s arrival as a young man on Gateway and his post-Gateway therapy sessions with an artificially intelligent psychiatrist he calls Sigfrid Von Shrink. Through the course of the book, Siggy gets Bob to slowly open up about the horrible tragedy that made him rich and permanently traumatised him.
Gateway has some great science fiction ideas, and it’s not hard to spot how it has influenced the genre. For one eye-catching example, the crumbling wormhole navigation system, along with its inherent risks and mysterious origins, was lifted wholesale and plonked onto Stargate SG-1. And while the concept of the Heechee – a long-gone advanced alien race – are a dime a dozen in SF, the way that Gateway bolts that together with Roadside Picnic’s concept of licensed prospectors going into unsafe zones to scavenge cast-off alien technology is pretty great.
Reading it nearly forty years later, Gateway holds up pretty well. The Big Dumb Object subgenre (cf Rendezvous with Rama, Ringworld and about 25% of all Star Trek episodes ever) is well-trodden at this point, but Gateway still feels fresh enough. The Freudian psychiatry feels pretty seventies-specific, but the therapy scenes are some of the richest character sequences in the book, and it’s hard to begrudge Sigfrid Von Shrink his spot as the books most entertaining character.
Another very modern-feeling element are the advertisements from Gateway’s public bulletin boards inserted into the narrative. Services are offered, social connections are solicited, conspiracies are touted. It’s a highly prescient extrapolation of bulletin board culture into a proto-social media – not a lot of SF gets that part of the future right.
One element that does not stand the test of time is a scene late in the book which was probably intended and received in the late 70’s as a moment of intense emotional crisis. From the 2016 perspective, it’s a repellent scene of domestic violence, wildly out of tone with the rest of the story, that demolished my sympathy for the character responsible. On the whole a small but significant blemish on an otherwise excellent and compelling story.
Vital stats: Published 1977; Awards: Hugo Best Novel (1978), Locus Best Novel (1978), Nebula Best Novel (1977) and Campbell Award for Best SF Novel (1977)