Friday, May 07, 2010

Book Review: Gateway

Frederik Pohl
Awards: Nebula, Hugo
Rating: ★ ★ ★ – –

The best thing about Gateway is the cool and unique setting. Frederik Pohl explores that setting with a relatively interesting story line – at least not one that seems like it was created half-heartedly just to show off the world he invented.

It is the relatively near future. During our exploration of nearby space, we have discovered a spaceport, which we call Gateway, that has been abandoned long ago by an alien species, who we call the Heechee.

The Heechee were technologically advanced and left behind an array of valuable artifacts, including spaceships with the capability for hyperspace travel. There are many of these ships still fueled up and docked at the spaceport’s gates. Everything is in perfect working order. It is like the Heechee just up and left one day, leaving everything running.

Conveniently, the Heechee appear to have been about our size and to have had similar environmental requirements, so it is possible for us to use their station and their ships in relative comfort.

The only catch is that we can’t read any of their instruction manuals or any of the indicators on any of their equipment. Everything we know about their technology we have learned from brute force experimentation – people getting into the ships, pressing a bunch of buttons and seeing what happens.

We have learned some very basic things. We know how to select a destination code and start the ships on their journey. We know that once the ship is started, it will not deviate from its pre-programmed course and it will automatically return to Gateway.

But we don’t know what the vast majority of the destination codes mean, so most of the time we don’t know where the ship is going. We don’t know how to program it to turn around or go somewhere else while it is in flight. We don’t know how to tell how long the voyage is going to be. And we don’t know whether or not the ship actually has enough fuel to get there.

So an industry has grown up around Gateway in which a corporation hires people to risk their lives flying the Heechee ships to where ever the ships might take them, and then gives them a share of the profits if they find something that is useful to the company (assuming they survive the trip).

Sometimes the ships end up in the middle of a supernova. Sometimes they run out of fuel and never come back. Sometimes the ships return with a dead crew whose food or oxygen ran out before the trip was over.

But sometimes the ships take the crew to a brand-new planet that is habitable or has a supply of valuable ore. Sometimes it takes them to a new Heechee port with still more artifacts. And sometimes the trip gives us more of a clue to the navigation system. When anything like that happens, it makes the crew very wealthy.

The main character, Bob Broadhead, is one of these pilots. He flew a couple small missions and then a third mission that made him wealthy beyond his wildest dreams, but left him a traumatized wreck with nightmares and guilt that he can’t get rid of. The book starts with him in therapy (with a computerized therapist he calls Sigfrid von Shrink) after returning from this last trip. Through flashbacks and sessions with Sigfrid we gradually learn about Gateway and the Heechee and what happened to Bob to make him both so wealthy and so messed up.

Again, I think that the best part of the book is in the setting – the Gateway spaceport and the ships that can set people up for life or kill them in any number of horrible ways. Bob’s story is fine but not quite as strong as the central idea.

And I do have to admit that although I can see that Bob’s third mission was scientifically very important, I don’t understand why it was of concrete monetary value to a corporation. Bob explained it to us but I still didn’t really get it.

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