Sunday 28 January 2024

Gateway by Frederik Pohl

As the winner of a Hugo and Nebula award, Frederik Pohl's Gateway has its share of the highest honours organised science fiction can bestow. But time is often unkind to the works of the recent past, and that is true of this 1970s space opera. Not because the depiction of the technology is dated, or that the mores are old hat. What sits ill with the contemporary is the tension at the core of the novel: the uneasy wedding of world building and narrative.

The premise of Gateway piqued my interest. The exploration of Venus finds the planet honeycombed with tunnels left by a mysterious alien race dubbed the Heechee. The disappeared without explanation 500,000 years previously, leaving behind a smattering of artefacts but nothing resembling writing, or clues about their society, or how they looked. Eventually a ship is located, an autopilot is triggered and off it flies to a nearby asteroid. Except it's hollowed out and contains a thousand Heechee ships, most of them operational. A corporation independent of Earth's competing nations is formed to oversee Gateway and prospectors are invited to take flights out. The ship controls and how they work are a mystery, so it's a case of volunteering for a flight, activating a ship, and hoping it will take you somewhere safe and return you before the on board rations run out. Big cash awards are available for prospectors who take close readings of celestial phenomena, bring back evidence of alien biology, and/or serviceable Heechee tech for reverse engineering. But it's all about chance. Because the controls are inscrutable and are only slowly worked out over the course of the novel, every launch is a lottery. Only the exceptionally lucky make a strike big enough to set themselves up for life. For the unlucky, of which there are plenty, life is exactly what they lose.

There are always volunteers and our hero, Robinette Broadhead, is typical of the world's working class. He was condemned to a life of drudge in the Earth's proliferating food mines. Because the population has swelled to enormous proportions, fossil fuel production is the only means of sustaining the hungry tens of billions. Oil and coal are extracted to feed yeast, which provides the dietary staples for most. In this future, the entirety of Utah has become an open cast pit and Wyoming is being strip mined of its oil-bearing shale. The problem are these fuels are finite and when they run out billions will starve. The hunt for Heechee tech that can alleviate this crisis is a top priority. But this isn't Bob's problem because, as fortune would have it, he wins the lottery. With his quarter of a million he escapes the grind and buys a single ticket to Gateway in the hope that, Micawber-like, something wonderful will turn up. And so we're set up for an interesting tale of discovery.

There are three aspects to the book. There are Bob's adventures on the station and the experiences of shipping out, his later engagement of a Freudian computer to help him through the trauma of the trip that made him rich, and a selection of vignettes, notices, and corporate reports that build background and provide the necessary info dumps. It sounds good, but the problem is while the conceit stands up the narrative that explores it does not. Pohl proves unable to provide a story that makes the most of the premise.

Reviews regularly complain about how unsympathetic a character Bob is. He's selfish, bedevilled by anxiety, and has his big secret hanging over him. But that's not the problem. Character flaws are fine - the problem lies in characterisation. Reflecting on Ringworld (among other things), I said there was something that didn't sit right with my teenaged self. Different author and a few decades later, but same problem. There's a hokey thinness to its structure of feeling. Not quite Hanna Barbara with swearing, but a cartoonish quality that pervades Bob's thoughts and actions. We see it also in the academics who appear in the bulletin segments. These glimpses are marred by an awkward join of everyman befuddlement and jaded wiseacring, which I can only presume is an effort at overfamiliar endearment. The difficulties with pitch are evident in relationships, which are stunted and almost always imminently sexual. This is where we encounter a major problem with Pohl's characterisation.

In this supposedly sexually liberated future where bed-hopping is the norm and same-sex relations don't raise an eyebrow, Bob frets about his sexuality. From declaring he has no problems with gay men as long as they leave him alone to shamefully enjoying unspoken and alluded-to liaisons, his psychoanalytic sessions with Sigfrid (to whom he contemptuously appends "the shrink") contrive a singularly uninteresting suggestion that his denial of gay inclinations are one of his main drives. The problem is if the future doesn't attach any importance to sexuality as it does now as an identity marker, therefore sexuality-based discrimination and oppression does not exist and it cannot work as a source of anxiety. The repression of desire and guilt has no material basis. There are no sanctions attending sexual activity between men, and therefore no costs of being found out. As motive it simply does not work because it cannot work, The second aspect of this sexuality tension, which is pretty insulting, lies in Sigfrid's location of Bob's repression. We learn that he was brought up by his mother alone and that they had a distant relationship without much tactile contact. The only time she showed any concern was when she took the infant Bob's temperature, which she did anally. His psyche defines this as intimacy, which explains the wellspring of his desire for men. This side narrative does offer an explanation about why Bob (or Robinette to give him his not-at-all coincidentally feminised full name) is annoying, but it is logically inconsistent and aits inclusions seems solely down to prurience - as if Pohl was trying to work out his own attitudes, but couldn't shake off what bothered him about homosexuality.

The depiction of women are of a type as well. They are up for going to bed with everyone at the drop of a hat, including married women. There are four female characters that become significant to Bob, and he ends up having sex with all of them. Klara is the most important and he forms a romantic relationship with her. She's impulsive, illogical, and beholden to horoscopes. Whenever there's some kind of intimate scene between the two star signs always come up, as if Pohl has trouble imagining his creation might have a complex internal life and be interested in other subjects. At least he doesn't keep talking about breasts. But in what is the book's most disturbing scene, after she hits Bob during a row he beats her up. Nowhere is this reflected on. Bob is aware that it probably means curtains for their relationship, but there's no guilt, or indeed much of a realisation that this is unacceptable. It's neutrally passed over and sealed with an apology once she returns after fleeing to Venus.

The politics of Gateway are ambivalent. The world is carved up into different power blocs, and each of them station their own cruisers by Gateway - presumably to keep an eye on each nation and their designs on the asteroid. As a hyper-marketised society, there is only one way out - the lottery of chance. Given how real world mining has bequeathed a rich tradition of worker militancy, it's difficult to conceive how a world dependent on tens if not hundreds of millions of miners would allow for a turbo-charged, semi-libertarian dog-eat-dog capitalist dystopia. It's worth noting that the world's power blocs, or at least the North American one, isn't groaning under the iron heel of dictatorship. Where there authority is represented in the text it stems from the Gateway corporation. As such, you could make the case that Pohl finds the society he's conceived repugnant and his use of the lottery to get Bob to the station and then treating every ship trip as a throw of the dice underlines a condemnation of the limits capitalism foists on human development. Or he's just noting that chance is a fact of life, fortune is tied up with risk taking, and all we can do is get on with it. Not explicitly neoliberal, but in concert with the spirit of the times.

Gateway does follow the conventional structure of introducing the new and then making what Steve Andrews calls the conceptual breakthrough, whereby the world is turned on its head and everything is cast in a different light. That happens via the trauma weighing down on Bob, and is about the only part of Bob's character arc that works. Some might not think this shortfall matters given how compelling the setting is. And to a degree, I'm interested in what happens next (there are a slew of sequels and shorts set in the Heechee sequence), but it would undoubtedly swear others off the series and perhaps Pohl's volumes of other works. As a 1970s space opera it does not compare well to the New Space Opera inaugurated by Iain M Banks a decade later, which did and continues to pay attention to literary quality, character development, and believable and consistent world building. There's a stylistic chasm between this and Hyperion, for example.

Is it worth reading? As a historical artefact, yes. But it is untouched by the British and American new waves, so the health warning is in place for those expecting crafted characters and decent plotting. Gateway is not a good novel for anyone thinking about getting into science fiction, and I'm left wondering how many mainstream readers tried it on the strength of its award winning reputation and went on to give SF a lifelong body swerve. One for the curious, but its glaring deficiencies do not make for a great read today.


Anonymous said...

Not untypical of much of the output of the 'golden age of magazine science fiction. I still have a copy of The Space Merchants by Pohl and C.M Kornbluth I bought on a market stall in 1963

Anonymous said...

Pohl was one of the very early Campbell-school writers of the "Golden Age" in the 1940s, alongside people like Asimov. I've never much liked his novels; he was much more capable at sustaining a short story. Interestingly, he did a lot of collaboration with C M Kornbluth, a rather similar figure but one who was a bit more experienced in human society and was able to generate some human interest along with the Big Ideas; although it's a bit choppy, WOLFBANE is probably the best of their collaborative novels.

Having said all that, GATEWAY may be socially primitive, but its ideas do suggest possibilities about what might actually materialise if there were a major spacefaring alien civilisation somewhere about. The Heechee are less obviously like humans than the "alien" civilisations of Banks' writings, all of which are human beings in fancy-dress. (Because Banks isn't so interested in what actual aliens would be like, but interested in projecting his socio-economic views onto aliens -- no bad thing, but a different kind of science fiction from what Pohl liked.)

kewlwarez said...

No, no, no, Pohl was NOT a "one of the very early Campbell-school writers of the "Golden Age" in the 1940s, alongside people like Asimov". He was mostly known as an editor and literary agent during the 1940ties, while his breakthrough as a writer came in the 1950ties, mostly in Galaxy. His work was never as earnest manifest destiny conquer the stars as "Campbell-school" implies.

Anonymous said...

You're completely right about Gateway not being a gateway for modern sci-fi - it's far better for the already-initiated. I think you've missed the point about much of the rest of it, though.

Firstly, it's primarily a work of allegory; consciously or not, Pohl is really turning the spotlight on the dreadful, unspoken secrets about how our modern capitalist society really works, and the world-building is bent to the purpose of contriving an ingenious setup for this. Clearest in the way that the main character wins the lottery once, and then has to effectively play it again, with his life... in order to get health insurance! In this light, the novel succeeds in fairly devastating fashion.

Secondly, Pohl only had a vague idea of what he was writing here. As with all truly great works of art, some of the most interesting parts are the ones that he probably didn't even mean to put in it. The incredibly ugly scene which you call attention to is the most striking - no pun intended - example. That's an unwitting Mary Sue (anti-hero variant thereof). You want to look at that not from a Doylist perspective, but from a meta-Doylist perspective - it's telling you about the author, not the characters or their story; and your reaction to it is telling you something more interesting than that! Likewise, the clumsy Freudian rubbish... Pohl made a doomed effort to get his head around the progressive sex-positivity aspect of his setting, hobbled by his own anachronistic understanding of psychosexuality. The other motivations and drives of his characters - which are far more relevant to the allegory - are more sympathetic (and they are still shallow, but no more so than in much award-winning fiction, even today, because real people don't fit into books). Perhaps even darkly predictive: that category of coping mechanisms which contains horoscopes has had a notable surging comeback lately, as we rapidly approach a real world bearing obvious similarities to the grotesque endgame-of-capitalism excesses of Gateway, has it not...? Nor is it particularly difficult from the present moment to imagine a future in which unions and solidarity have been systematically crushed by an alliance of governments, capitalists, and corporations. Hell, solidarity in the traditional working class appears to be fighting to escape its deathbed today.

The fact that Pohl managed to create a compulsive story, and a tantalising slew of delicious space-operatic mysteries, from his allegorical setting is its curse as much as its blessing. I haven't read the sequels, but I suspected that they existed only because of an eager market clamouring for a neat and ape-friendly resolution to its hanging threads. I've read enough about them to convince me that my suspicion was probably correct.

Anonymous said...

I suggest compare and contrast with this more recent short story. Despite approaching adjacent, partially-overlapping subject matter from a direction which is more Stephen King than Larry Niven, it's a far more upbeat take.