Monday, February 22, 2010

1978 Hugo and Locus, 1977 Nebula - GATEWAY by Frederik Pohl

Gateway has a fantastic set-up. As humans reach out to other planets in the solar system, they discover ancient artifacts from a disappeared alien race called the Heechee. These artifacts eventually lead them to a massive space station (the Gateway itself) and hundreds of ships that can be programmed for interstellar jumps. Pilots have little control over where the ships go, and the missions are usually extremely dangerous, but brave prospectors go out anyway under the sponsorship of the Gateway Corporation in the hopes of finding profitable Heechee technology.

I loved the concept undergirding the novel. The characters I did not love as much. The central character and narrator is Robinette (or Bob) Broadhead, a poor Wyoming food miner (yes, Earth is still overcrowded and over-polluted, as ever of late – actually, in a nice and timely twist, people mostly want to get rich so they can have decent healthcare coverage – the rich are virtually immortal; the poor not so much), who wins the lottery and uses the money to buy a ticket to Gateway. The novel is actually told in alternating chapters: the first follow an older and very wealthy Broadhead through a series of psychotherapy sessions, while the others flashback to his younger prospecting days on Gateway. Pohl has much the same approach to human psychology here that he had in Man Plus; basically, people are selfish, cowardly, and extremely fragile, and lovers are untrustworthy. On the one hand, I love that Pohl attempts to bring so much psychological complexity to his novel. On the other hand, something about the execution rubs me the wrong way, just as it did in Man Plus.

I don’t mind reading about flawed characters, but Pohl’s can be so flawed that they fall flat. And they can be really really annoying. Not to mention the fact that Broadhead does some very despicable things, including some violent acts against the women he loves. Pohl doesn’t treat these acts lightly, but I didn’t quite feel that they were treated with the requisite gravity. Pohl seems to want us to forgive Bob and sympathize with him, but he makes it pretty damn hard to do so. Again, I don’t mind dark, unsympathetic characters, but I think Pohl works too hard to excuse some really deplorable behavior. And, in the end, the characters don’t have the complexity of, say, Ursula K. LeGuin’s.

I certainly see why the awards all took notice of this work. The concept alone deserves recognition, and there are some interesting writing tricks – Pohl disperses odd newspaper ads*, corporate reports, poetry, and even paystubs through the novel to help build the universe (though this isn’t as revolutionary or effective as what we saw in Stand on Zanzibar). And it is very well-written as well. Overall, I enjoyed the novel; the characters just didn’t quite work for me.

*it sort of amazes me that we’re in the late ‘70s and still no one has anticipated the digital age.

Grade: A-

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