Monday, December 31, 2007

Review - Gateway

by Frederik Pohl
1978 Hugo Winner for Best Novel
1977 Nebula Winner for Best Novel

And now we move back into that staple of 1970's science fiction: the giant engineering project. Following in Clarke's and Niven's footsteps Pohl's aliens have built a massive structure which humanity can only fathom the most basic of information about it. Unlike Clarke and Niven, however, the people in Pohl's novels are working to do something about that.

Gateway is a huge alien space station that exists outside of the plane of the solar system close enough that people can travel there regularly. On the station are thousands of small craft that are the only thing known capable of faster than light travel. The problem is that people only know how to get them to go and stop. A course can be set but its unintelligible to the humans who gamble on these ships to find artifacts of the lost civilization that built Gateway. They've been gone for over a hundred thousand years but the few trinkets that survive can be reverse engineered. With the destinations unknown the risk for people searching for artifacts is high but someone who returns with a new find will be rich beyond imagination.

The book is about Bob Broadhead whose last trip out from Gateway made him one of the wealthiest men in the world but left him mentally shattered. As he undergoes psychiatric treatment he recounts how he spent his winnings from a lottery on a ticket to Gateway to gamble on making a real fortune but lost his nerve when he got there. How he recovers it and the tales of the journeys he makes from the station drive the story.

That narrative isn't really the point, though. Gateway is about as immersive of science fiction novel as you'll find. The station feels real and you can almost smell the stench. Everyone on the station is gambling on one big score and their triumphs and failures resonate strongly. Pohl adds to the immersion by often including tidbits of text from various publications on Gateway; advertisements, lecture notes, bits of reports, and the like. By the time the novel ends Gateway is a living breathing place.

As a viewpoint character Bob is pretty reprehensible. He does a lot of unlikable things in the novel but one gets the impression that much of it is done because of his fragile mental state and he remains interesting despite this. Still if you require a likable protagonist then you may not enjoy Gateway as much.

One of the things that I really appreciated in Gateway was the fact that people are trying to learn from the alien artifact. In Rendezvous With Rama, for example, people show up and look around but they don't do much in terms of trying to recover artifacts. Here people are taking a step up, often at great risk.

And speaking of that risk if there's one problem that I do have with Pohl's novel its that prospecting from Gateway is far too deadly. I did some quick back of the envelope calculations and found that they should run out of aliens ships to attrition in just a few years with the results that Pohl provides. It's a nitpick admittedly but since part of the atmosphere is that it is very dangerous and deadly having that danger far out of proportion to what should allow the system to function is disruptive.

But that's the worst thing I can say about Gateway. It's a wonderful book, a fine take on the alien artifact genre, and fascinating in its view of the mashed up culture that forms on this new frontier. It also has an incredibly haunting ending that will stick with you for a long time. This is one not to miss.