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Bookends: Coming to Terms With a Moral Dilemma February 8, 2018

Posted by klondykewriter in Bookends, Frederik Pohl, Science Fiction, Uncategorized.
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Bookends: Coming to Terms With a Moral DilemmaGateway

By Dan Davidson

February 22, 2017

– 791 words –



By Frederick Pohl

Narrated by Oliver Wyman

Introduction by Robert J. Sawyer

8 hrs and 37 mins

Audible Studios

288 pages in hard copy




I don’t re-read too many books, but with the advent of audio books and lots of long distance driving, I’ve taken to re-hearing books that I first read years ago.

Gateway is a tour de force by the late Frederick Pohl. It won all the major best novel awards in the science fiction world: the Hugo Award (basically a peoples’ choice award); the Nebula Award (voted on by writers in the field); and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award, which is more than fitting since Pohl was also a great editor in his day.

In his enthusiastic introduction to this audio book, former Berton House Writer Robert J. Sawyer (who has also won all these awards) explains the importance of these accolades and tells you why Gateway is his all time favorite SF novel.

After nearly 40 years my memory of the story wasn’t sharp, and so there were a lot of pleasant surprises.

At novel length Pohl first made his mark as a sort of SF satirist, and some of that shows up in one of the two strands of this first person narrative. Robinette Broadhead (who insists he is a man, in spite of what his mother named him) is a troubled individual. We know this because we first meet him when he is deep in a psychotherapy session with a very patient and somewhat drool artificial intelligence whom he calls Sigfrid Von Shrink.

Bob, Rob, or Robbie (he gets all of these), grew up on a very impoverished, very crowded planet Earth, where he worked in the shale mines, extracting hydrocarbons from rock (impressive forecasting here), not to burn as fuel, but to turn into nutrients for a hungry planet.

Planet Earth hasn’t done too well in terms of getting people into space, and might not have been able to do anything if they had not discovered leftover traces of a long vanished alien race they call the Heechee. They left habitable tunnels on Venus and Mars and, more importantly, the Gateway asteroid, filled with hundreds of self-guiding spaceships in a variety of sizes.

When Rob wins a lottery, he uses the money to travel to Gateway in hopes of becoming one of the successful prospectors. These men and women ride those ships out and back, and sometimes find Heechee artifacts that can be reverse engineered for human use, even if humanity has so far been unable to figure out how the ships work. One such device is called a p-phone, something that reads very much like today’s smartphones, only more so.

Much of the book is taken up with life on Gateway and with Rob trying to work up the courage to actually join a launch crew and take a trip. The odds are not that good, he learns. Some ships never return; some come back with bodies; some come back with crazy people; some come back alive, but without any profit gained.

Alternate chapters take us through Rob’s time on the asteroid and on three trips that he finally does make on the unpredictable Heechee ships. We also spend a lot of time on his interactions with others, especially on his growing love affair with Klara, a woman who grew up on Venus.

Now, we know from the sessions with Sigfrid that Rob ultimately survives all these hardships, and ends up fabulously wealthy as a result of his final trip. The therapy sessions are years later, when he is still trying to cope with the emotional fallout of some catastrophic event that occurred when he was younger. We have a clear sense that he’s been chasing sensation and temporary liaisons ever since in an effort to numb his conscience – but we don’t know why.

So the tension in the book comes from our need to know about Rob’s emotional and spiritual damage rather than his physical jeopardy. However, Pohl tells both parts of the story so well that you sometimes forget not to worry.

When the story starts there is tendency to view the Sigrid sessions as a bit of comic relief from Rob’s grim life story, but as the book progresses, the two strands take on equal weight and, in the end, the final climax comes in the therapy room.

This was intended as a standalone novel, but ended up being the first of four books. There were some possibilities for more work in this universe and Pohl was persuaded to spin them out.

The reading, by Oliver Wyman, was extremely well done.