Pohl’s Law: “Nothing is so good that somebody, somewhere, will not hate it”
The above law rings true for me, but surely if a science fiction novel wins both the Hugo Award and the Nebula Award, it just has to be good. Right? The Hugo Award is voted on by fans at the annual World Science Fiction Convention, while the Nebula Award is handed out by the critics in Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA). For a book to win both, it has to impress both critics and readers alike, so no wonder it’s an honour reserved for only the very best. Having never read Frederik Pohl’s Gateway novel before, I was eager to find out whether I agreed with the masses or proved the author’s law correct. As usual, the answer isn’t as clear cut as I’d expected.
If you get both of these symbols on your book, you’re pretty much set.
Frederik George Pohl was born in 1919, and I doubt you could find a bigger fan of science fiction literature anywhere in the world. His passion came early, co-founding a New York-based Futurians group as a teenager. The Futurians were a group of science fiction fans that were also interested in the political applications of the genre. Their goal of realizing a scientific world state led them to connections with communism and the utopian movement Technocracy. While that dream would never be realised, their ambition to become a major force in the development of science fiction writing did. The Futurians included members as esteemed as Isaac Asimov, Donald Wollheim, Damon Knight, and of course Frederik Pohl.
A bunch of the Futurians at Pohl’s house, including Asimov (third in the front row) and Pohl himself (third in the centre row).
Image Credit: Frederik Pohl’s own blog, The Way the Future Blogs
Pohl began writing in the late 1930s, editing the magazines Astonishing Stories and Super Science Stories. He inserted a few of his own short stories within these publications, using several pseudonyms along the way. From the late 1950s, Pohl was editor for Galaxy Science Fiction and Worlds of If magazines, winning three successive Hugo Awards for Best Professional Magazine for the latter. Pohl also began collaborating with other authors during this period, producing a bunch of sci-fi novels with C M Kornbluth and a couple of trilogies with Jack Williamson (Undersea Eden and Star Child). It wasn’t until the 1970s that Pohl really began making his mark as an individual novelist. His 1976 novel Man Plus (about a man turned into a cyborg to survive the harsh climate of Mars) won the Nebula Award. Its follow-up, Gateway, was first serialized in Galaxy magazine before being given a hardcover publication in 1977. It cleaned up the 1978 Hugo Award, the 1978 Locus Award, the 1977 Nebula Award, and the 1978 John W. Campbell Memorial Award, all for Best Novel categories.
Galaxy Magazine: Some seriously good authors contributed to this monthly magazine.
So what’s Gateway all about? Well, at some point in the future, Earthlings discover an abandoned space station within an asteroid. The station was built by the Heechee, a race of beings that disappeared from our part of the universe a million or so years before we found their handiwork. This Gateway has close to a thousand spaceships docked in it, with each of them able to hold 1, 3 or 5 humans reasonably comfortably. Understandably fascinated, humans begin to study the technology of both the station and the ships, but are unable to understand it. What we do discover early on, is that activating any of the spaceships and selecting one of innumerable destination codes causes the occupants to be transported there at well over the speed of light. A lander can then be used to reach the surface of nearby planets, with some of these locations containing Heechee artifacts that help the human race understand their technology. It’s extremely dangerous, with more than half the ships returning to Gateway empty, with dead occupants, or simply never returning at all. With limited people involved in the research that are willing to risk their lives, the corporation involved offers people on Earth the opportunity to travel to Gateway and try their luck. If they find something valuable they’ll be set up for life. Or…not.
The original Gateway hardcover. A rare science fiction painting by Boris Vallejo.
Robinette (Rob) Broadhead has always done it tough on Earth, slaving away in the food mines to try to make a living. When he wins a lottery, he uses the money to buy a ticket to Gateway, hoping to make enough cash to live in prosperity for the rest of his life. Unusually, when the reader first meets Rob, his trip to Gateway is over, and he’s back on Earth receiving counselling from a robot named Sigfrid. He’s insanely rich, obviously having uncovered something very valuable during one of his journeys out from Gateway. He’s also a very damaged man. Rob seems reluctant to talk about certain topics, particularly a woman named Klara Moynlin, and becomes angry whenever Sigfrid makes him think about what happened to her. From this point on, Gateway’s chapters switch between these psychoanalytic sessions and Rob’s experience away from Earth. It’s very cleverly written, with aspects of Rob’s guilt revealed gradually over time, interspersed with connected revelations of his time on Gateway and onboard various Heechee ships.
An adventure game based on the book was released in 1992. I will have to play it one day.
Image Credit: Original cover of Legend’s game via Moby Games
I can see why Gateway won all the awards it did. So often of late I’ve found myself feeling a little bit underwhelmed at the end of established classic books. Not so here. I ripped through Gateway in just a few days, which is quick for me, and thought about it often when going about my daily business. The setup might not be completely convincing (why don’t they just send robots out in the Heechee ships instead of risking lives and paying big bucks), but it made for gripping drama. I was left with so many questions after the first few chapters, and while it took until the final moments for the most critical of them to be answered, the fascinating journey along the way left me with little opportunity to become frustrated. Who is Klara and what happened to her? What did Rob find and how much money did he receive for it? Who are the Heechee and where did they go? What did Rob do to form so much guilt and anger? That last question is really what the book is about, making the counselling sessions just as interesting as the times spent in outer space.
Pohl sadly passed away last year after the better part of a century writing acclaimed science fiction.
So why did I suggest early on that my feelings for the book were not completely clear cut? The truth is that the book has raised a very interesting question for me. Should our opinion of a story’s main character’s actions influence our judgement of its quality? Rob is not a pleasant man. He’s selfish. He’s fearful. He’s volatile. He’s unfaithful. His relationship with Klara was at first quite romantic, and I presumed that any misgivings I had about Rob’s personality might be offset by some sort of redemption by the book’s end. Let’s just say that by the time I was three quarters of the way through, it was apparent that Pohl wasn’t going to give me what I desired. I’ve since learnt that the author was married no less than five times over the course of his life, separating from his fourth wife during the year Gateway was written. Perhaps Klara and Rob’s relationship spiraled as a reaction to his own disillusionment? Perhaps I’m reading into things too much. Either way, the major cause of Rob’s discomfort turned out to be questionable, his participation in the event that haunts him more than a little ambiguous. Some of his other actions were completely shocking to me though, making me question whether or not it’s in good taste to enjoy the novel so much. Could that have been Pohl’s intention all along? Regardless of the answer, Gateway is a book that manages to transcend its genre, its science fiction setting just a host for a captivating and at times disturbing human story.
The Gateway (1977) RetroCard has now been added to the RetroCard Shop. It’s an uncommon card, so therefore costs 30 smacks and has a limited release of 60.
Featured Image Credit: Internal artwork from the leather bound Eastern Press version of Gateway via Ebay