Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Frederik Pohl's "Gateway" (novel): Survivor's guilt of a reluctant hero

Quote from the novel titled Gateway by Frederik PohlWhile there are sf elements galore like aliens, space travel, & AI, this story is primarily a character study (of hero).

While I generally liked this story, there are three negatives worth noting:

  1. Its main plot element is looting of other peoples property when they are not home!
  2. Another major plot element used for building up tension - 65% chance of death on voyage on untried routes - is utterly contrived & unconvincing. This job of checking the safety & fruitfulness of routes could have been easily been done by fitting additional instrumentation to the ship. Using it as primary device to built tension appeared very phony.
  3. This is not an exceptionally entertaining story. I found it easy to put the book away whenever I wanted, though it didn't really bored me. I finally finished it over may be 20 or more sittings.

Story threads.

There are three parallel but related threads in the story:
  1. A government controlled gold rush to loot the property of aliens known as Heechee.
  2. Narrator's many sittings with his AI psychiatrist, Sigfrid von Shrink. This AI is less sophisticated than you find in many genre stories - it's closer to what is normally called an "expert system", though it is a sophisticated one.
  3. Minor & very interesting nuggets in the form of bulletins describing events at Gateway. Gateway is "An asteroid. Or perhaps the nucleus of a comet. About ten kilometers through, the longest way. Pear shaped... an orbital body that came inside the perihelion Mercury and outside the orbit of Venus, tipped ninety degrees out of the plane of the ecliptic so that it never came very close to either". Originally prepared by Heechee half a million years ago as a spaceport, but abandoned for some reason. This is the administrative headquarters of the prospectors.
I didn't generally enjoy the psychiatrist sessions - they were ok read but not great. Narrator, Robinette Stetley Broadhead, got rich during the gold rush, but is harboring guilt related to the event that really made him rich. So he is seeking treatment to leave those demons behind.

What is the gold rush about?

Looks like a long time back, aliens called Heechee had a presence within Sol, among a lot of places - not only in Milky Way but in other galaxies too. Initially, their presence was found on Venus in the form of tunnels that were part of their habitat - along with some artifacts.

Sylvester Macklen, "just another tunnel rat on Venus - found a Heechee ship and got himself to Gateway, and died there. But he managed to let people know where he was by cleverly blowing up his ship. So a NASA probe was diverted from the chromosphere of the sun, and Gateway was reached and opened up by man." That was 18 years before the timeline of this story.

Later investigations revealed Gateway was a Heechee spaceport. Gateway also has an intricate tunnel system. And it has 924 Heechee spacecraft docked! These are 1-, 3-, & 5-seater starships - some armored against dangers men cannot guess. These ships are paired - main ship normally carries a lander part you use to go down to the surface of a planet.

Gateway Enterprises, Inc, '(usually referred to as "the Corporation")', under joint military control of US, USSR, China, & Brazil who also hold a share, manages its commercial exploitation. It's a very profitable venture for shareholders - "In the fiscal year ending February 30 last, the total revenues of the Corporation exceeded" US $3.7 trillion.

While some Heechee artifacts were found at Gateway, the real charm lies in starships docked there. Or rather, using them to go to other places in space where Heechee have been, & loot what you can of their property. This is risky business - not only could the owners be home (though that has not yet happened), but because so little is known about these ships.

The alien ships at Gateway.

These ships are an enigma, though humans have been able to figure out a way of using them - sort of.

No one has been able to figure out how they work, "what the fuel is, or how much there is, or how to tell when a ship is about to run out", etc.

"We're going to get into a ship that we don't know if it's going to get where it's supposed to go, and we don't even know where it's supposed to go. We go faster than light, nobody knows how. We don't know how long we'll be gone, even if we knew where we were going. So we could be traveling the rest of our lives and die before we got there, even if we didn't run into something that would kill us in two seconds."

In fact, the number of successful missions is rather low. '2355 launches ... 841 successful returns ... That was defining "successful" very loosely. It meant that the ship had come back. It didn't say anything about how many of the crew were alive and well.'

The art of piloting these ships.

What is known about the ships is: they "could go anywhere. Anywhere!"

It is thought that the destination is set by tinkering with a kind of dial with 12 numbers. No one knows how to correlate these numbers with real destinations in space; so setting the destination number has become an art!

"You would think that three numbers would be enough to describe any position anywhere in the universe... But it took the Heechee five. Does that mean there were five dimensions that were perceptible to the Heechee?"

"What you usually do ... is pick four numbers at random. Then you cycle the fifth digit until you get a kind of warning pink glow. Sometimes it's faint, sometimes it's bright. If you stop there and press the flat oval part under the teat, the other numbers begin to creep around, just a couple of millimeters one way or another, and the pink glow gets brighter. When they stop it's shocking pink and shockingly bright. Metchnikov says that's an automatic fine tuning device. The machine allows for human error - sorry, I mean for Heechee error - so when you get close to a real, valid target setting, it makes the final adjustments for you automatically."

"Sometimes you can cycle all the way through your fifth digit and get nothing at all. So what you do is, you swear. Then you reset one of the other four and go again. It only takes a few seconds to cycle, but check pilots have run up a hundred hours of new settings before they got good color."

Apart from target position, you also specify some minor settings: "Once you get a lock on the first five numbers, the other seven can be turned to quite arbitrary settings" - they probably offer some control over the path to get there.

Any attempt to tinker the dial, while in transit, appears to kill the ship.

And there is a single-click control to bring you back to Gateway.

Story summery.

So we get a tension filled plot - phony tension, since tension will evaporate if you flew them unmanned during first voyage to a specific destination.

One or more prospectors take a ship of an appropriate type. Wherever the ship takes them, they do local prospecting, & dig out whatever Heechee things they can haul back. Gateway administration has a way of valuing Heechee artifacts, & any other information they can gather. Any profits from exploits will entitle prospectors to a royalty.

While many have got rich, far more have died. Many mishaps can happen - ship runs out of fuel, ship ends up "in the photosphere of a star", ship is going so far the riders run out of food, ...

Robinette has a menial job on earth, wins a lottery, & uses this money to buy a ticket to Gateway. He will take 3 prospecting trips - first about 40% of the way through the story, & last that makes him rich.

After two unsuccessful missions, Robinette will strike it rich. He was part of a 10 member expedition that included his girlfriend Gelle-Klara Moynlin - in 2 armoured 5-ships. At the end of their voyage, both ships ended up "almost inside the event horizon" of a black hole!

He was supposed to be the only one stuck there when they attempted to get out through means that sound utterly implausible to me; instead he turned out to be the sole survivor. So he collects others' profit too. Now, 16 years later & aged 45, he is still carrying the survivor's guilt among sundry other demons of his past, but would like to outgrow it.


Normally in the order they appear in the story.
  1. "Sigfrid is extremely smart, considering how stupid he is."
  2. Q: "Didn't they have some system of storing knowledge, like writing?"
    A: "think about our own storage methods and how they would have been received in pretechnological times. If we'd given, say, Euclid a book, he could have figured out what it was, even if he couldn't understand what it was saying. But what if we'd given him a tape cassette? He wouldn't have known what to do with it. I have a suspicion, no, a conviction, that we have some Heechee "books" we just don't recognize... we may not have the instrument we need to detect the messages."
  3. "Maybe maturity is wanting what you want, instead of what somebody else tells you you should want... but what it feels like is mature is dead."
  4. "You don't have to accept any responsibility you don't want to."
  5. "The first step when you have a problem is to know you have it... second step is to make a decision: Do you want to keep the problem, or do you want to do something about it?"
  6. "Most of the methane in the Earth's air is cow farts."
  7. "Guilt? It is a painful thing; but because it is painful it is a behavior modifier. It can influence you to avoid guilt-inducing actions, and this is a valuable thing for you and for society. But you cannot use it if you do not feel it."


  1. The novel has a reference, unrelated to main story, to Robert Silverberg's "Lost Race of Mars".

Fact sheet.

"Gateway", novel, review
First published: 1977
Rating: Time well spent A
Winner of Hugo Award 1978 in novel category
Winner of Nebula Award 1977 in novel category
Alternate but less common search term: "1976-77 nebula award winner frederik"