rewarded with fantastically valuable plunder or instantly killed by what they find. Much of the action takes place in the uncomfortable environment of the Gateway space station where recruits take life-threatening gambles on which spacecraft will bring them home rich, and which will leave them splattered all over the insides of their ship.
Inserted along the way are the details that I imagine to be grist to the sci fi fan’s mill: mission reports, classified ads depicting daily life on a space station, discussions of what happens to you in a black hole. The imagery itself feels dated, as past visions of the future invariably do. Twentieth century dreams of space travel, of discovering extra-terrestrial life, now seem impossibly naïve in a world where NASA has been forced to shut down its shuttle programme for lack of funds.
Gateway seems to capture the fading of the hopes and dreams that characterised earlier science fiction. Its protagonist, Robinette Broadhead, is very much a mid-twentieth century kind of hero – practically Woody-Allen-neurotic. No longer excited about man’s quest into space, which had done nothing to alleviate the feelings of inadequacy, loneliness and sexual confusion within. Every other chapter of the book is spent in Broadhead’s psychiatry sessions where he wrestles with the yawning gap between the worldly goods he received on Gateway – wealth, women, fame – and his ongoing personal misery.
Science fiction and fantasy always struck me from outside as wrapped up in the surface of things, as if the mere presence of talking animals, or space ships or the Night’s Watch were more important than the things they said or did. The result seemed so often to be hopelessly flat caricatures or plodding, predictable narratives. Here, at least, Frederik Pohl has created something substantial beneath the conventions of the genre. Perhaps because it bears such close comparison to Joseph Heller’s Catch-22.
Like Yossarian, Broadhead is openly a coward who postpones as much as possible the missions that might well lead to his death. There is no space here for gung-ho heroics, just a man obsessively measuring his survival chances.
Often witty, Gateway doesn’t quite match up to the great satire of Catch-22, but its politics are impressively radical. Rather than the military police, here it is poverty that drives Broadhead towards danger. Indeed, many of the supporting characters give their lives and those of their families in a desperate bid to escape poverty – like desperate migrants on rafts to Europe. One particularly harrowing passage describes how a dying young man sold off his body parts rather than seek treatment so that his family could reach Gateway and have a chance at fortune.
Also like Catch-22, the book builds towards an ending in which the trauma that still plagues our hero is revealed. I won’t give it away but it is quite a haunting concept, and one that only a sci fi geek could possibly concoct.
Gateway is, as my copy tells me, a “Masterwork” of science fiction that won the Hugo award among other prizes. But the label seems limiting, as if the setting somehow strips it of the recognition as Real Literature that it would receive if it was set during the Second World War or among European colonists (to which the novel already seems to allude). What actually distinguishes it – and sets it far apart from the previous two novels I reviewed for these pages – is in large part the quality of the writing (far superior) but above all the interest in real human experience, which it shares with all great novels regardless of the genre.
Eric the Unbeliever reads Gateway by Frederik Pohl
In what may turn out to be a rather naive and fool-hardy venture, we at Holdfast have decided to attempt to spread the love of Speculative fiction by trying to convert some self-proclaimed 'Unbelievers.' Eric Randolph, a SERIOUS journalist who covers SERIOUS world affairs, and normally likes ‘high brow’ stuff has come back for Round 3 after we failed utterly to convert him with Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan and managed a tie with Neil Gaiman's Anansi Boys. We are overjoyed that Eric actually liked Gateway by Frederik Pohl and so it's a win!
Unbeliever 1, Holdfast editors 0
Unbeliever 1, Holdfast editors 1
Unbeliever 0, Holdfast editors 1
Unbeliever 2, Holdfast editors 2
Over three reviews as the Unbeliever, I’ve been introduced to ‘speculative fiction’, as they call it, via a neat trilogy – starting with the mediaeval fairy tale stylings of Tender Morsels followed by the modern day fantasy of Neil Gaiman and culminating here with the futuristic sci-fi adventures of Frederik Pohl’s Gateway.
Yet, while that suggests a journey from past to future, the final book seems far more historical than the others. First published in 1976, it bears the melancholic air of a certain time in America when the country’s postwar confidence was ebbing away, and the promise of space-age exploration had come crashing back to earth.
Gateway is a cynical novel with a neat concept: an abandoned space station of ancient alien spacecraft that transport people automatically to distant locations where they might either be
I chose Gateway for Eric for this issue for a few reasons. First, we hadn't yet thrown any SF at him, only fantasy, so I was curious to see what his response would be to that other mainstay of the speculative genre. Second, I love Gateway. I think it's a brilliant and scary book. Third, it's not just me that loves it; as Eric points out, it's Hugo Award-winning and is well-regarded as one of the greats. I wanted to see how he'd fare with a book that's lauded as being a good book and that I think has stood the test of time.
I really love Eric's contextualisation of Gateway - it's helped me see it in a new light, certainly, considering it in terms of the fading of the US space programme and a growing cynicism regarding space travel. When I read Gateway I didn't think too much further beyond the book itself, possibly as I was too caught up imagining myself as one of the explorers in their alien
mushroom ships, on a voyage to an unknown destination. To me, it captures how awful space travel must be. Interestingly, considering how Eric has drawn parallels between Gateway and Catch-22, space travel has always struck me as something that would be described in the same way that war is: long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of terror. And what terror. The ghastly things that happen to other explorers, such as being infected by alien fungal fumes, are described in lurid detail. As Robinette hangs around Gateway building up the courage to take a ride he becomes obsessed by other journeys and accidents, an obsession that heightens the sheer dread that he feels.
Robinette is an entirely mediocre person. He's there simply because he won enough money on the lottery to buy a ticket. He's left one horrible existence (working in the mines on Earth) for another. As the scenes with his robot psychiatrist after he wins big on a trip out show, he has not dealt with his relationship with his mother, his lovers or his inadequacies as a man. But, who has? Robinette is an entirely realistic everyday guy. As Eric has discussed, we find out the big trauma near the end of the book - the journey out that gets him rich, but at what cost? It's terrible, and if we're drawing allusions to Joseph Heller books, then it filled me with the same kind of horror as the ending to his other great work, Something Happened, did.
Because here's where my third reason for choosing Gateway comes into play. Eric liked Gateway. He liked the writing. He enjoyed the plot, the concepts, the minor and major characters. What I found interesting about his response is that he sees the fact that it is known simply as a masterwork of science fiction limiting. There is an assumption that if a genre writer is 'good' enough, then they can transcend, that they can become known as simply a writer. Not a science fiction writer. Not a fantasy writer. Just… a writer. Maybe even… a literary fiction writer!
It's really just the perception of these genres that is the limiting factor. Eric says that Gateway reminds him of Catch-22 and Yossarian's terror of dying. I agree. But while I think it's a shame that Gateway isn't on the best 100 books ever lists like Catch-22 is, I don't think it's a shame that it's known as just a masterpiece of SF. Because of course great SF is about the human experience and captures the human experience the same as any great work of art can. It just examines it in ways that haven't yet happened. Thanks to Catch-22, I have an idea of how our grandfathers felt. Thanks to Gateway, I have an idea of how our grandchildren will feel.
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