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Frederik Pohl
Gollancz, 320 pages

The Extra
Frederik Pohl
Frederik Pohl was born in 1919 in New York City. His first novel was The Space Merchants (with C.M. Kornbluth) serialized in Galaxy magazine (1952) and his first solo novel was Drunkard's Walk, a Galaxy serial in 1960. He has won Hugo Awards as an editor (1966, 1967 and 1968), as a short story writer for "The Meeting" (with C.M. Kornbluth) in 1973 and in 1986 for "Fermi and Frost," and as a novelist for Gateway in 1978. He won Nebula Awards for Man Plus in 1976 and Gateway in 1977. As well, he has served as President of SFWA during 1974-76 and World SF for 1980-82.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: The Last Theorem
SF Site Review: The Last Theorem
SF Site Review: Platinum Pohl
SF Site Review: The SFWA Grandmasters, Volume 1
SF Site Review: O Pioneer!
SF Site Review: The Siege of Eternity

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Trent Walters

Frederik Pohl's Gateway has long been considered a classic of the genre. In 1978, it won the Campbell, the Hugo, the Locus and the Nebula awards. Did it deserve such laurels? In a word, yes. The mysterious tunneled worlds and technology of the Heechee still feels fresh and full of wonder.

The novel weaves the past and present of Robinette Broadhead, from his contemporary psychiatric sessions with a computer he has dubbed Sigfrid von Shrink to his reminisces of less fortunate days. Robinette's is a tale of both rags-to-riches as well as deeply embedded guilt he refuses to examine. As an adolescent, Robinette's father dies leaving him to mine shale for food. When he wins a lottery, he moves to Gateway -- an alien port cobbled out of an asteroid riddled with tunnels -- for a chance to win even bigger glory and riches.

The only problem is that the chances of glory and riches are small, and reluctance or cowardice seizes Robinette, especially after seeing the misfortune of other ships leaving port. Gateway is an abandoned, alien outpost. Peppered across the galaxy on different planets are strange technologies that reverse engineering cannot reveal their secrets. Passengers have little control how alien vessels move. You simply allow the vessels to transport you to potentially dangerous lands or violent suns.

After a number of mistrials -- Robinette botches both a mission and his relationship with his girlfriend -- he finally hits pay-dirt but not in any way he'd hoped for.

A number of readers have complained about the psychiatric sessions. Until you learn about what happened to Robinette, the sessions may feel like histrionics. But they are actually intriguing once you do find out what happened: Robinette wants relief from his guilt yet he keeps dodging it, perhaps afraid he might find himself truly guilty. As fun as the other parts are, these bits can be the interesting ones on the reread.

Some of the inevitably dated yet intriguing artifacts (of any SF work coming out of the era it was written in) include cigarettes, tapes, marijuana, transcendental meditation, and Sigmund Freud. The first two probably seemed ubiquitous and inescapable back in the day, but cigarettes -- at least in many first-world countries -- are far more rare today than they once were (which does not exclude their persistence into the future). Both smoking materials -- tobacco and marijuana -- should be rare and expensive on an asteroid, but it's less the probability that I find intriguing but that the author and his readers assumed their prevalence, which they may yet be. Transcendental meditation was relatively shiny and big on the circuit. This may have given the novel a futuristic sense in its day, while today, it lends more of a strange mystique.

The only surprise here is Freud. Naming the computer psychiatrist "Sigfrid" may be a nod to Freud. His theories have been popular to discuss for over a century but were largely discredited before this novel appeared. It isn't Sigfrid but Robinette who lays Freud's theories on the psychiatric couch. Sigfrid ignores any of Robinette's attempts to bring these up as feints, ways to hide behind his true psychiatric ailment. Clearly, Robinette has taken time to study psychology to root out evils other than the evil that truly ails him. This remains unstated but implied in the novel, making the psychiatric sessions all the more fascinating.

Some readers may have hoped for more revelations on the absent aliens. If you want to find out more about the Heechee and their technology, you'll have to read the rest of the series: Beyond the Blue Event Horizon (1980), Heechee Rendezvous (1984), Annals of the Heechee (1987), The Boy Who Would Live Forever: A Novel of Gateway (2004).

The sense of submerged wonders still waiting to be discovered, Robinette's psychological dodging and his growing list of painfully successful mistakes, as well as the strangely stratified society continue to make Gateway a novel worth reading today.

If you're interested in discussion of and teaching strategies for Frederik Pohl's shorter works, see the APB blog. Pohl also blogs. Spider Robinson reads "Day Million."

Copyright © 2011 Trent Walters

Trent Walters teaches science; edits poetry at Abyss & Apex; blogs science, SF, education, and literature, etc. at APB; co-instigated Mundane SF (just to give people something to talk about) culminating in editing an issue for Interzone; studied SF writing with dozens of major writers and and editors in the field; and has published works in Daily Cabal, Electric Velocipede, Fantasy, Hadley Rille anthologies, LCRW, among others.

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