Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Tunnel Vision

Gateway (The Heechee Saga Volume 1) by Frederik Pohl (1977): Gateway won pretty much every genre award for best novel of the year for 1977: the Hugo, the Nebula, the Locus, and the John W. Campbell, Jr. And it holds up well, 35 years later. Science fiction can date very, very quickly, and there are some dated assumptions here. No surprise is that one involves computers, which seemingly everyone in science fiction saw as remaining giant things in a room somewhere.

But anyway. Several hundred years in the future, humanity discovers a 10-km-long cometary nucleus orbiting the sun in a right-angle orbit to the planets. That nucleus is honeycombed with tunnels, possessed of a breathable atmosphere, and loaded with hundreds of faster-than-light starcraft left behind by a mysterious race dubbed the Heechee, who had also left artifacts on Venus which the residents there, in their terraformed tunnels, had previously found.

The ships can be programmed to go to pre-selected destinations. And at these destinations may be Heechee artifacts or scientific discoveries worth a lot of money. And so volunteers spend their life's savings to get to Gateway (as the nucleus is dubbed), there to become the high-mortality-rate guinea pigs who will take these ships out and maybe return.

Pohl, a fine science-fiction writer and editor from the 1950's onwards, constructs a fascinating and mostly plausible future Earth, with a hungry population of 25 billion and a fascinating and plausible means of feeding them that doesn't involve eating people. His protagonist, Robinette Broadhead, is a sympathetic Everyman with major psychological issues. And the mystery of the Heechee, which would somewhat disappointingly answered in subsequent Gateway novels, is here fresh and unexplained. Why leave all the ships but not identifiable records? Where did the Heechee go, and why?

Pohl also seems to anticipate hypertext in the novel -- the main narrative is broken up with different 'documents' comprising computer coding, wanted ads from Gateway newspapers, official mission reports, and excerpts from interviews, letters, and lectures about Gateway. There are certain 1970's tics here that someone who has read a lot of science fiction from that period will recognize. People still smoke, even in small spaceships that take weeks to get where they're going. And everyone seems to have become bisexual in the future.

One of the ingenious elements of the novel is also very 1970's, in a Woody Allen way. Gateway alternates chapters between Robinette's story of his days on Gateway, and Robinette's much-later experiences on Earth with a computer psychiatrist who is trying to get him to deal with the trauma of his childhood and of his final mission in a Heechee spaceship. It's genuinely brilliant and very, very 'Me' Decade. All in all, highly recommended.

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