Gateway – Frederick Pohl

“My name is Robinette Broadhead, in spite of which I am male.”

The Sci-Fi Masterworks series has been a mixed bag for me. A lot of ‘classic’ sci-fi writing seems a little stilted to me now, or the ideas so recycled since that it’s nigh-on impossible to appreciate the original. Still, I’m enjoying trying to work my way through the list, discovering the germs of future plots and occasionally smiling at how times have changed.

And then there was Gateway – so good, Orion have named their new sci-fi classics imprint after it (well, I assume! ;)).

Robinette Broadhead escapes the drudgery of the food mines by winning the lottery. He buys himself a ticket to Gateway – an ancient, recently discovered, alien space station. It houses hundreds of pods, each capable of travelling across the galaxy. Sadly, no one understands the Heechee (alien) language or technology, but mankind is so desperate for fresh resources that volunteer ‘prospectors’ are sent out to test the different settings. Will they find alien resources to make them rich? Or, just as likely, will they end up inside a supernova – or return at all?

The story intersperses the now-millionaire Robinette’s present-day psychotherapy sessions with flashbacks telling the story of his time on Gateway. Although preferable to the conditions on Earth, it’s still a harsh and austere landscape, well-described and feeding the sense of desperation that drives the prospectors to risk their lives. We, the reader, know that Rob both survives and strikes it very rich indeed – but with terrible guilt over… something.

That growing sense of dread as we near the big reveal is edge-of-the-seat stuff. Alas, the final denouement could have been slightly better done, in my opinion – or at least, I failed to fully grasp the telling, despite re-reading the revelation a good half-dozen times. I was left pretty much ‘getting it’, but my confusion diluted the final punch, alas.

Still very recommended. There was very little of a dated feel to the piece, either, apart possibly from one rather misogynistic moment. The tech, though, is so beyond comprehension of the characters that it remains darkly mysterious to the modern reader, too.

There are several sequels, but Gateway feels like a complete story.

Paperback: 313 pages / 31 chapters
First published: 1977
Series: Heechee saga book 1
Read from 4th-8th September 2015

My rating: 8/10