Gateway • 1977 • SF novel by Frederik Pohl

★★★★★

Meta: isfdb. SF Master works #9. SF novel of Frederik Pohl published in 1977.

Synopsis:

This SF masterwork from 1977 is centered around a BDO – a Big Dumb Object, which its owners, the Heechees, have left some million years ago. It remembers me a bit of Rendezvous with Rama which was published in the same decade. I also see a connection to the TV series „Stargate“ which is based on a novel by Stephen Robinett, whose name is reflected in the main protagonist’s name.

Gateway is a kind of spaceport in the Venusian eclipse containing some 1000 small FTL spaceships, each of them pre-programmed to unknown targets. Prospectors on Gateway try their luck in a balance of Sense-of-Wonder and Angst, a kind of Russian Roulette – launched spaceships might end in a star’s corona, a black hole or lead to far away to get back alive. If lucky, they end as multimillionaires when retrieving some Heechee artifacts or discover interesting new things.
There is a very high death rate which makes it a bit implausible for me that anyone would man such a suicidal cruise under normal circumstances.
But they aren’t normal, they are very dystopian: Earth is overcrowded, polluted, just bad. People flee to Venus which isn’t much better.

Main protagonist Robinette Broadhead isn’t very likeable, he’s even an anti-hero: Agressive, broken, heavily flawed. He came back as the only survivor from an accident which can only occur in a SF setting, and has to work through his survivor depression. In fact, this is a novel that shows you that the main protagonist doesn’t need to be likeable at all to be worth reading, to suck you into the story.

Review: Pohl combines interior and exterior world in a marvelous way, bridging pulpish Space Opera and New Wave subgenres:

Structural, the novel switches between psychotherapy session chapters („Sigfrid“ being a reference to Sigmund Freud) reflecting the interior world of Rob and chapters around exterior, space opera adventures. Both concentrate on the main protagonist. They are interleaved with lots of vignettes containing classifieds, mission reports, scientific articles which represent a world view independent of Rob.
There is no clear linear narrative structure, destruction the adventerous tension arc with those psychoanalytical sessions.

This structure reminds me a lot of dystopian New Wave novel Stand on Zanzibar, published in 1968 – although it doesn’t reach that novel’s literary quality.
The setting is great and mostly believable: the SF part isn’t an accessory for the psychoanalytical findings as in many other works – it is absolutely necessary and also creative.

I highly recommend it.

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