RogerBW's Blog

Gateway, Frederik Pohl 12 August 2017

1977 Hugo- and Nebula-award-winning science fiction (and the Locus and Campbell too). The mysterious and vanished aliens known as Heechee left behind a space station in solar orbit, and lots of small FTL spacecraft attached to it. But humans haven't really worked out how to navigate them yet.

Which means that the "prospectors" who try new course settings, in the hope of finding some really valuable alien artefact and making their fortunes, are the poor and desperate. The Corporation is making a note of the course settings they use and which ships don't come back, and is very slowly building up correlations, but taking a ship out is still a huge risk.

This is a promising setup, but unfortunately we see it all through the eyes of Robinette Broadhead, who got out of the food mines (processing shale oil into basic nutrition for Earth's starving billions) by winning a lottery, and is essentially cowardly and incurious, not to mention thoroughly stupid, self-interested, and narcissistic. He beats up his ex-girlfriend for sleeping with another man (when he's just been sleeping with another woman), and blames her for provoking him. Our hero, folks.

It's a very 1970s-feeling book, with Freudian therapy (which is Right) and primal screams, and people having tawdry casual sex apparently not because they enjoy it but because they assume it's a thing people do. Oh, and homosexuality is Scary. Women are "girls" even when they're naval officers, as long as they're young and pretty. There are no women in this book who aren't young and pretty, and Rob sleeps with most of them. Because the narrative alternates between rich Rob in therapy now, and poor Rob trying to decide whether to go out prospecting back then, there's very little tension: we know he will survive and get rich, and we soon find out that he feels guilty about something bad that happened to a particular person. The only thing really in doubt is whether he's actually to blame for whatever it was, or just thinks he is, and since he's such an uninteresting and unsympathetic character I couldn't find it in me to care.

While it's dressed in the clothes of a Big Dumb Object story like Ringworld or Rendezvous with Rama, this ends up being much more in the style of Budrys' Rogue Moon, a psychological piece about a subject I couldn't find engaging.

Followed by Beyond the Blue Event Horizon. Reread for Neil Bowers' Hugo-Nebula Joint Winners Reread.

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  1. Posted by Owen Smith at 03:35pm on 12 August 2017

    Ignoring the characters in the book, this world setup sounds like it could make quite an interesting role playing campaign. The PCs would be people using the FTL ships, maybe one of them has an innate knack (PSI maybe?) for the navigation but has no idea how they do it. Maybe in the first scenario two PC groups meet at the same destination. The Corporation could be anything from semi benevolent but needing to let people go out and do this dangerous thing in order to ssve the human race, to the true enemies of the PCs and maybe the world. Maybe they know how to navigate safely but it's too expensive.

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 05:48pm on 12 August 2017

    To get a similar feeling, one would want to emphasise that these people are the desperate and expendable rather than the scientists and other experts who can actually make sense of the weirdness they encounter. The biggest ship is a five-person, and there are bounties for various observations as well as the really big money for artefacts and such.

    Not sure it would have much in the way of legs – either you find something interesting and retire, or you die, or you give up and go home to live in poverty – but it might make an interesting episodic campaign, one expedition per game session, with a changing cast.

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