Superluminal Speed at an Incremental Pace: A Review of Gateway by Frederik Pohl

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Gateway, by Frederik Pohl, fair use for review.

Robinette Broadhead is a rich ex-astrogating prospector who spends his time and money interacting with his AI Freudian analyst he’s nicknamed Sigfrid von Shrink. The book is RB’s accounting for the need of therapy where we learn his dirtly space secret, but that’s for later. First let’s take the Dickensian approach. It was the worst of times. The Earth is a scarred and barren dystopia. Robbie works as a miner for shale oil slime that is the main food of humans. Televisions run morale-building commercials. It was the best of times. At age 26 he wins the lottery. This is good because as we discover, the universe is a capitalist issue. It was the spring of hope. There’s money enough for him to get off this sphere of despair with of a one way ticket to Gateway. Gateway is a pearl-like 10 kilometer long space port with about 800 kilometers of tunnels once populated by a mysterious race called the Heechee. Today it’s the interstellar hangoug where hippies meet hyperspace. Pot smoking is allowed. Inside are hundreds of people and nearly a thousand smallish spacecraft, each with preprogrammed courses to take prospectors anywhere, — who knows where? The lucky prospectors reach planets and retrieve artifacts, a good find brings millions of dollars and a full Medical that can allow a person to live an extra fifty years. The unlucky ones…zip, zap, kaput, fried in the ship or never to return.

After an interminably long set up, Robbie finally goes on a mission. Missing, however, is what I think Pohl is after, the gut-wrenching terror of playing the odds, where one bets one’s life on the possibility of wealth, that in turn seems to outweigh a desire to “go where no man has gone before.” The ship does an out and back to a waste of time gaseous planet. The payoff is 90 days of body reek and interpersonal friction.

Next up are pages of delay as Robbie undertakes relations with the opposite sex while fretting about going on another mission. This gives us time to consider. Gateway seems much larger than its stated dimensions. And there are fewer space ships ready to go than it seems there should be given the number that didn’t return, the ones that were ruined, and given the number of people and flights hinted at in the writing. But I won’t pick much because the whole book is like driving the Indy 500 with no tires, it’s a complete screaming failure but it’s sort of fun to watch.

Robbie hangs around Klara, whose name, because of typos, is often misspelled as Kiara — quite confusing at first. Highlights: they eat in a commissary and they roll around in their sleeping hammocks. All of this is shadowed by the nostalgic trace of late 70’s doobies and easy love. Dane Metchnikov discovers what seems to be the secret to which ship has the best success rate for prospecting space loot. A series of ships rush off. Robbie, Klara, and Metchnikov are not on one of them and the discovery has no future relevance to the story. While reading, I frequently felt I was under the main stage at Woodstock, alone, on a drizzly grey day, after all the bands and people had left, with wet matches. The book never strives to enter the atmosphere of fabulation as much as it hauls the quotidian into space. I longed for a greater degree of Verfremdung, or defamiliarization, a rendering of structures and orders through the strange so that underlying their realities become visible. (1) When the normative toodles along thinking it’s just fine, I want to watch as its previously unseen insidious aspect replicates and switches all perspective. This “making strange” to go with Simon Spiegel’s phrase is what I think is one of sci fi’s biggest strengths.

On Gateway everything costs and everyone works for the Gateway Corporation. Welcome to panopticon of the technocratic monopoly. I hope the uniforms have bell-bottoms. In between accounts of Robbie’s Gateway experience, chapters switch to his therapy sessions; that are all tedious argumentative chapters to the point where I had to skim to survive. And, by the way, it was obvious one chapter break for a switch between the regular plot and the therapy session had been missed. Somehow it was reassuring to know that editors then (probably spaced out on pot and Led Zeppelin) were as sloppy as those of today, (probably spaced out by Oxycontin and multitasking). Then out of the darkness of space, streaking across the sky like a comet, comes a funny line, “Sick societies squeeze adventurers out like grape pips. The grape pips don’t have much to say about it.”

Robbinette, who we discover likes to have a fling meaning all the time and most every night, gets jealous when his main squeeze Klara does the same. So he beats her up. Now feeling typical machismo fake guilt he puts all his remaining money on a losing roulette number, and takes the first available One flight. Two months later he arrives at a huge Heechee metal object. He bumps the ship’s controls, somehow disables his ship, and is rescued by people on the new object that turns out to be Gateway Two. Unlike the crowded and hot Gateway One, this star station is cold and inhabited by only seven people. He’s in trouble having for having broken regulations by basically ruining his ship by touching the controls, and he’s penniless. He meets a woman named Hester and together they are sent back to Gateway One, a two month trip in which letter writing and sex fills the hours. Back on Gateway he continues his modus operandi of working his way through hookups at light speed. In off times he attends astrophysics lectures (how he understands them having never gone to school is a mystery) and he smokes grass. Sure, he’s shallow but so are all the characters, and by this I mean they’re shallow in terms of writerly development. Characters resonate with the depth of a line drawing.

It is discovered two Five ships are going to the same destination, it’s not explained how anyone knows where any ship is going. Maybe it’s each ship’s second or more flight and there are flight records. If so then why is it so important to find out what’s at the destination? Abandon all hope, ye who seek the well thought through interplanetary explanatory. Off they go! At over ten light-years a day. Where do they end up? A black hole! Nothing to see here. But it has a certain attraction. They link the ships so one can accelerate one back toward Gateway and the other can continue to be sucked into the black hole. Robbie jettisons 9 people in the doomed ship so he alone can return home safely. Of course Shrink has a heyday helping Robbie work through all his guilt, assuming mass murderers feel guilt. That whole intense climax is as sharp as dog’s drool. However, there is a nice little kicker at the very end, Robbie has asked if the AI considers Robbie’s life to be ‘a living,’ given all his guilt and pain. The computer answers, “You asked me, ‘Do you call this living?’ And I answer: Yes. It is exactly what I call living. And in my best hypothetical sense, I envy it very much.” Oh ho, we muse, AI self-awareness has arrived. The end. This is about the only shining moment in this vast ho-hum universe. However, the ending would have resonated far better with a character we cared about, one who wasn’t a woman beater, who didn’t see woman simply as conquests, one who had some degree of reflexivity, and one who wasn’t a sociopath who purposely killed 9 of his crew members including the woman he once said he wanted to marry.

Gateway is built on a great premise of random exploration but everything else suffers. It lacks new and amazing worlds and it’s a relatively terribly envisioned story line. Yet, skipping the therapy sessions, it’s a mildly fun romp to a space station, and luckily it’s a very quick read. As of 2017, it seems a TV series based on the book was in development. Who knows what ever happened. But then again, who knew the future could be so dirigiste.

This binary system of a book is comprised of two stars: the first is dullness and the second is a lack of issues to spark speculation. Some fascinating idea, any idea would be good. I couldn’t even get a grip on ways this novel reflects 1977, as a product of its time much beyond an underlying bildungsroman about a young adult’s entry into the capitalist working world and his blind acceptance of capitalist ideology. C’est la vie according to Deleuze and Guattari who wrote, “A world market extends to the end of the earth before passing into the galaxy: even the skies become horizontal.” (2) Maybe more interesting is that the book contains an emptiness akin to embarrassing shows of the late 70’s, that include The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, and The Bob Newhart Show in which relatively dull people were stuck in a whirlpool of near meaningless week to week angst. To be sure, there’s a whole Heechee history and mystery that is hinted at but not explained, oooh… I’ll file it under the topic “Who cares.” Maybe the five following books (Yes Gateway became a sci fi gateway drug for more novels) would provide an answer or at least give a tee-tee if some chichi Nietzsche loving Heechee did the hoochie coochie down in Chattahoochee. But probably not. By the time they get to the dancing, I’ll have shipped out on a One and be light years away, heading toward unknown destinations of hopefully greater literary marvel.


(1). I am sort of bouncing off Simon Spiegel’s Things Made Strange: On the Concept of “Estrangement in Science Fiction Theory. Science Fiction Studies. Vol. 35, 2008.

(2) Deleuze, Gilles and Guattari, Felix. 1994. What is Philosophy? p. 97. New York NY: Columbia University.

Novelist, poet, a post-studio visual artist, and the founder of The Invisible Art Collective International. Recent novels include “Sundre” and “Garbage Head.”

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