Book Review: Gateway by Frederik Pohl

Gateway (Heechee Saga, #1)Gateway by Frederik Pohl
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Yes, I really did devour this book in a single day. Part of the reason is that I was down with a cold, so really couldn’t do anything else and thus had the time to do so, to be fair; but mostly it was because I thought this was an amazing book and once I picked it up, I couldn’t put it down.

The basic plot, in case you missed it from other reviews: near Venus and Mercury, in a perpendicular orbit to the elliptic, is an asteroid covered with ships created by an ancient alien race that they call the Henchee (though they don’t tell you where the name comes from). It was discovered when alien ruins, created before we climbed down from the trees, were found on Venus, and one of the ships was found there. The person who found it accidentally piloted it to the asteroid base, where he eventually died of dehydration and starvation, or would have if he hadn’t blown himself up in an attempt to alert Earth as to where he was. This sets the tone for the casual acquaintance with death that is part of the mood and setting of the novel.

Now the asteroid, called Gateway, is inhabited by a gold-rush style community of “prospectors.” Each of these ships seems to be capable of going to a location pre-set by the Henchee with some sort of FTL drive, and returning via an automatic piloting system. But no one understands exactly how to set that location. No one knows how long each trip is going to take, and no one knows how long it’s going to take to get back, so you might starve to death on the trip. A system of drawing lots to suicide and even survival cannibalism has been worked out by the prospectors. Because the Henchee systems seem to be integrated you can’t remove any of the Henchee equipment without destroying the ships, so you must cram human survival gear in next to all of the equipment. The ships are able to support one, three, or five people with extreme difficulty and in close enough quarters to literally be in each others’ armpits. The Henchee may have had some other way of picking up nourishment on the way; humans do not.

Even if you do survive the trip that way, because the Henchee built all this stuff maybe millions of years ago, whatever it was that was in the location they went to that they were interested in might be gone. Planets might have been eaten by suns going supernova. Stars might be white dwarves by now. You might end up literally in the middle of nowhere, or you might end up in the cornea of a star or cooked by coming out too close to a blue star by radiation. The risks and the odds are astronomical. There are many, many ways to die, many of them indicated by “mission reports” that Pohl includes intermingled in the text, along with classified ads, letters home, and various other dribs and drabs that give you a really clear picture of prospector life and the surrounding community that has developed. As an aside, some reviewers have been critical of what they see as trademark 1970s liberalism in the society so described, but I think those reviewers probably haven’t read as much as I have about frontier towns and communities that grow up around other dangerous professions, such as soldiering. It seems pretty typical of such communities to me. Not a lot of children present, sex and drugs (at least soft ones) available everywhere, and some really great intellectual and artistic stuff going on alongside all that.

So why would anyone do this? For the same reason people left everything to follow the gold rush; the potential for the big payoff. If you find something of scientific value on your mission, they pay you a science bonus in the millions of dollars. They pay you a multi-million dollar danger bonus if you survive something extremely dangerous. They pay you royalties in the thousands if your discovery can be used by future generations (such as discovering a new world full of Henchee ruins, or a faster route to something of significance.) In order to get this, you’re basically owned by the Gateway Corporation until you do. You don’t have to leave on missions once you get to Gateway, but there’s a life support systems tax and everything, as it often is in frontier gold rush towns, is extremely expensive, so you either get a shoveling-shit kind of job for a subsistence existence or you dare the runs.

And why would you go there and take this risk? Because society is basically a corporatist, overpopulated dystopia, in which there are so many people competing for so few resources that oil shale must be mined to grow food in bacterial and mold cultures. That’s where our protagonist, Robinette Broadhead, comes from, one of these food mines. His father was killed in a mining accident when he was young and his mother died of lung cancer from exposure to mining chemicals; she might have lived, but she didn’t tell Bob that she was sick because he had suffered a psychotic episode and was undergoing psychiatric care, and she didn’t have the money to pay for treatment for both of them. In many ways this is a 1970s sci-fi trope — overpopulation causing widespread famine — but Pohl treats it as an impetus for the story and not the story point itself, and honestly, with the risk of climate change and current economics, it’s not an unrealistic view of the future, I’m sorry to say.

The story is told in the form of flashbacks that come from Bob seeking psychiatric treatment after he has struck it rich at Gateway and returned to Earth, where he now lives a multi-millionaire’s lifestyle. He’s suffering from severe PTSD and is trying to get his life back in order.

I’ve seen more than one review that describes Bob as a “whiner” or an “asshole.” I think that these reviewers don’t understand PTSD. Pohl’s depiction of the disorder, which I happen to know a great deal about both from research and experience, is spot on. A person acquires PTSD not necessarily from experiencing a dangerous situation (though certainly they can,) but also from living with fear for a very long time. Children with abusive parents acquire it because they never know when they’re going to be attacked next, as do abused spouses (both male and female,) and soldiers acquire it because they never know when the next assault is going to come.

Bob expresses much of his post-traumatic stress in the form of suppressed rage. Perhaps other reviewers haven’t realized it but his trauma began long before Gateway; it began in the dangerous mines, where he grew up knowing that his father was killed by an accident and knowing his mother died of chemical exposure; and the same would inevitably be his fate if he remained, but he had nowhere else to go. That, I think, certainly qualifies as a trauma-inducing situation. So when he won the lottery, and it was enough to take him to Gateway, he went.

But this was just going from the frying pan into the fire. Many people are driven by desperate poverty into, say, the military, even though they’d rather not do it; or more commonly, petty crime with considerable risk (like gangs or the drug scene). And if anyone says they had a choice not to do that, I say that such a person has never experienced that kind of desperate, crippling poverty. I have, and there have been times in my life when I have seriously considered such things.

Bob spends a lot time dithering on Gateway before taking his first run. Many people see that as cowardice, and he describes it as such when he is in therapy, but Bob is an unreliable narrator suffering from a great deal of survivor’s guilt and self-loathing. Since one of the first things he experienced was the smell of cooked bodies when a cleaning crew opened up an ill-fated returned ship, I think it’s rational fear. He didn’t want to risk his life like that, but he felt he had no choice if he wanted to live. Scary stuff and I would hope the reader would imagine oneself in that situation. Unless you’ve been faced with the choice of such odds, I don’t think you have any idea how you’d react. I think that people who failed to empathize with Bob’s plight probably spend too much time playing video games. He’s a normal guy, an anti-hero, not an action hero.

A spoiler follows:

(view spoiler)

Now many people will instantly condemn Bob because he hit a woman who was his girlfriend. That makes him an abuser. Yes, it does. But I also think this has to do with a lack of understanding about PTSD and a lack of understanding of Bob’s situation. Bob ended up breaking up with his first girlfriend because he was too scared to go on that first mission. So the million-dollar payoff could have been his, and then he would be out of this situation in which he must risk his life and live with fear as a constant companion. Or he might be dead. His current girlfriend also avoided going out on runs due to fear. So there was a lot of misplaced self-loathing involved in the situation, and when Bob struck her, he was really striking himself. It doesn’t make it okay, but it does make it *understandable.* He would not be the first person suffering from PTSD to do something similar. (hide spoiler)]

There is also a brief exploration of LGBTQ themes in this book, in that slightly-awkward way that the 1970s has of presenting LGBTQ characters. Gay and lesbian characters are presented as a matter of course in the people that the protagonist encounters, and Bob himself has a brief fling with a character who identifies as bisexual. But Bob struggles with that and feels a certain degree of shame and embarrassment about it in therapy, and there’s also a suggestion (subtle, but there) that Bob’s brief homosexual fling has something to do with his psychological issues. This is a problematic element that you find in 1970s fiction, representing the prejudices of the time. But it’s possible that someone who is unaware of the prejudices of the time might not even notice this issue.

After that, Bob tears off on a spree of self-destruction, and this eventually culminates in a really terrible situation which he survives. I won’t spoil it for you because this is the climax of the book we’re talking about, but if you could survive such a horror without having nightmares you either fail to grasp the horror of it, or you’re a sociopath.

Gripping, moving, outstanding sci-fi novel about the risks of discovery, the bravery of humanity, and about ordinary people doing the best (and sometimes less than the best) they can in terrible situations. It won pretty much every award available in science fiction there is and it deserves it. Seriously, read it.

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Book Review: Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen

Gentleman Jole and the Red QueenGentleman Jole and the Red Queen by Lois McMaster Bujold
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a book that is probably written mostly for the fans of the Vorkosigan Saga. But that doesn’t mean that other people wouldn’t find it interesting and thought-provoking also. Let’s start by clarifying — this book is primarily a planetary romance; that is to say that it is a science fiction story that takes place on a single planet and that centers around a particular relationship’s development. It’s also a story about retirement, and about learning who you are in retirement. It’s also a story about a grown-up child learning that his parents are real human beings. It’s also a story about parenthood, and legacies, and about giving love its due while there’s still time to do it; after all, nobody ever said on their deathbeds, “I wish I’d spent more time working.”

So, speaking strictly of Lois McMaster Bujold’s writing, as one of my favourite authors, I would say it’s typically complex, typically character-driven, and typically human. It does what a good science fiction book is supposed to do; considers how technology might change and challenge the human condition.

It is not a space opera, not unless you take it in the wider context of the whole saga. It is not an intergalactic spy novel. It is most definitely more literary fiction/romance novel than science fiction action/adventure. Lovers of action need not apply.

That said, I liked it very much because it quite neatly tied up a lot of loose ends in the saga and established the legacies of characters I have come to care about very much over the years.

I would have read this book regardless of what was in it because I am a dedicated fan of the Vorkosigan Saga, but I selected this book as part of two reading challenges I am doing. One was a Space Opera challenge (https://www.worldswithoutend.com/roll…), and the other is an LGBTQ Speculative Fiction challenge (https://www.worldswithoutend.com/roll…). For that reason I will address the LGBTQ elements specifically. SPOILERS follow!

(view spoiler)

Some critics and reviewers have expressed their unhappiness with what they see as “shoehorning past history” in creating the discreet, behind-the-scenes relationship that the entire novel’s premise rest upon, but I think that’s really just a reluctance to admit that Aral’s character has always been bisexual, though expressions of that were obviously limited in the political climate of socially-backwards Barrayar. I think that this has always been going on and that Bujold had it in the back of her mind from the beginning, as one of those salient details the writer always knows about, but the reader might not; especially since our viewpoint character through most of the series has been Miles Vorkosigan, Cordelia’s and Aral’s son, who was being kept deliberately out of the loop for a number of reasons; the homophobic society, the political ramifications of what might be seen to the very traditional Vor as “adultery,” and even the very normal awkwardness from discussing one’s personal and sexual life with one’s adult children (which might rightfully be considered none of their business). I love this aspect because it also shows that Miles, for all his cleverness, is not infallible, especially when it comes to his deliberate personal blind spots.

I like the idea of this relationship very much. Bujold treats both LGBTQ relationships and polyamorous relationships as something unconventional but no more complicated than many other relationships might be. As a polyamorous bisexual person myself, I laughed aloud when Cordelia lamented how complicated all the SCHEDULING had been! That made me wonder if she’s been there, or if she just happens to be really good friends with someone who has.

Another central piece of the plot is that some of Cordelia’s ova and Aral’s sperm has been saved, and enough of it is viable that not only can Cordelia choose to start some new sisters for Miles, even at the age of 76 thanks to uterine replicators, but enough enucleated ova of Cordelia’s have also survived (that is, ova with no cellular nucleus) that it is possible for the scientists of the time to meld DNA from Aral’s and Jole’s sperm (taking an X chromosome from one and a Y chromosome from the other) and create a child who is, in a way, born of all three of them. The dilemma as to whether Jole, at the age of fifty, will do this or follow the path of his military career, is part of the central conflict of the novel. (hide spoiler)]

I want to address this for a minute, because the technology to do all of this is not some invention of the far future. This will be possible within a decade. Uterine replicators are currently being tested on animal fetuses. And the sort of technology that combines an X chromosome from one donor and a Y from another into an enucleated ovum, which is where all the RNA building instructions are located, is how Dolly the Sheep was cloned. It’s how it works.

I think this has some beautiful implications for LGBTQ and infertile people wanting to start families in the future. Wouldn’t that be a marvelous thing? As a woman who has suffered miscarriage, I love the idea of uterine replicators and I can tell you, I would have been extremely glad of such a thing myself. I can hear the Christian Right beginning their outcry now at the “unnaturalness” of it all, but they can lose a baby to miscarriage before they argue with me about it, otherwise they can quite frankly go to hell.

There’s so many ethical and social implications of this technology that it really should delight any dedicated science fiction fan. Bujold has already dealt with many of them throughout the series — the implications of children sired by rape, of mothers exposed to dangerous chemicals, of crazy depots trying to assure their genetic legacy, of genetic engineering. We could trace some of those out in different directions. For instance, if bearing a child does not become necessarily entirely a mother’s burden, should potential fathers have the right to decide to raise a child in a uterine replicator if the mother doesn’t want to keep that child? If so, should the mother be tapped for child support? How about the dangerous chemical exposure issue — could it possible, or *should* it possible, to legislate women who are chronic dangerous drug abusers to put their fetuses in uterine replicators so that we wouldn’t have crack babies anymore?

Anyway, I thought the book was well worth reading. I will of course collect it because I collect the Vorkosigan Saga. But I’ll hold out for a trade paperback or a cheap hardcover. Good, satisfying, an excellent conclusion to the series, but in and of itself, not *great,* not like some of Bujold’s past books. It suppose it suffers by that comparison, and I suppose that’s not entirely fair. Still glad she wrote it though.

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Book Review: Brothers of Earth by C.J. Cherryh

Brothers of Earth (Hanan Rebellion #1)Brothers of Earth by C.J. Cherryh
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read this book because I’ve been meaning to read C.J. Cherryh for some time, and also because I was doing a challenge to read 15 space opera books by the end of the year. However, this book is not space opera. It’s a planetary romance. That being said, it’s a really good planetary romance, centered on a fascinating alien culture with about 17th century technology that reminded me very much of an Indus Valley sort of culture, with lots of formalities and strange social customs and caste systems and interconnecting (and internally clashing) racial divides. The plot? Picture Avatar if things had gone poorly.

Admittedly it uses some time-honoured sci-fi tropes that the artsy sorts would tell you immediately mean that it must not be taken seriously, but keep in mind it was written in 1976, first of all; and secondly, I say so what? I think people are far too hung up on being original, and they try so hard that they often lose the elements that make a good *story*. Cherryh is much more interested in character and story than in making sure that her universe obeys hard science, which is downright refreshing in the midst of the modern obsession.

Above all the strongest part of this book were the incredibly well-realized characters. I loved each and every one of them, despite and maybe because of their flaws, and even the villains are empathetic. Cherryh remembers that old saying that a story is something happening to someone you care about, and she has made me care about these characters. Enough that the ending annoys me somewhat, since it is clear that there will be more books to follow this one. I understand there are sequels; and therefore, quite a lot remained unresolved.

It’s a chewy read; the kind of thing you have read in pieces to fully grasp the nuances. You can’t just sit down and devour it. To be honest, with time running out in my late-begun reading challenge I selected it in part because it seemed a thinner book than many others I have and I thought it would be a quick read. Don’t you believe it. But it was worth it.

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Book Review: Cities in Flight by James Blish

Cities in Flight (Cities in Flight, #1-4)Cities in Flight by James Blish
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Cities in Flight is an omnibus edition of four related books written by James Blish in the 1950s and 60s. Each one is a stand-alone story but they interconnect. The essential premise of the plot is that three factors — the Cold War, the discovery of anti-aging drugs, and the invention of anti-gravity technology — results in a mass exodus of entire cities from Earth, who then spread out among the stars as independent city-states. Some colonize planets; others, called “Okies,” wander from planet to planet doing odd jobs for pay, which sustains their civilizations; but just like hobos throughout history, they are routinely harassed by the police and seen as ne’er-do-wells. It is about one such Okie city, New York, New York, that Blish writes.

The first story, “They Shall Have Stars”, is not really about the characters, but it introduces the necessary technology and geopolitical pressures that create his world. “A Life for the Stars” is a twisted bildungsroman in this unique sociopolitical landscape that Blish has created (which is a wonderful thing in and of itself; considering the sociopolitical consequences of new technologies!). “Earthman, Come Home” is arguably the most character driven book of the series. And “The Triumph of Time” is ultimately about how we human beings confront mortality; but, more than that, how we confront inevitable oblivion.

My favourite character is John Amalfi. And I love how utterly ordinary Blish’s characters are. No chiseled jaws and rippling pectorals here; just ordinary people dealing with extraordinary situations in a cavalier, almost Wild West pioneer spirit. That Wild West aspect was intentional on Blish’s part. Reading the appendix you discover that Blish was directly inspired by Spengler’s “Decline of the West.”

However, there were some flaws in the characterization as well, and some characters were better realized than others. Chris, the viewpoint character of “A Life for the Stars,” was terribly undeveloped. He existed for the sole purpose of exposing Blish’s politics and science. I could have taken him or left him. And I do have to say that I find it tiresome that these men writing classic science fiction, who were so progressive in terms of many of their ideas and technology, never seemed to anticipate that women would eventually be just as likely to be in positions of political and military leadership as men. Blish even pointed out how women never end up getting selected to serve as “Mayor” (which in this story is actually a eugenically-democratically elected Emperor of a city-state) by the computers that do that selecting. I guess it was really hard for men in the 1960s to accept that their skills in this department were not genetically superior to those of women. 😉 I have to give that a pass, though, because it is ridiculous to expect works of previous time periods to conform to the standards of the present day.

I like how the events of one book have effects that ripple into the others while, at the same time, being entirely stand-alone works (though “They Shall Have Stars” might have looked better as a story in Analog or Asimov instead of as a book.)

Some of the other readers in my book club were baffled and irritated by some of the science, which reduced their enjoyment of the book. I can see their point. The anti-aging drugs weren’t that terribly well developed and probably drew back to what was cutting edge science when the book was written, which of course is now completely obsolete. And it didn’t seem to make a huge amount of sense to me either; it was just discovered that some chemical compounds prevented come kinds of cellular degeneration, and the ones discovered later were also effective at eliminating mistakes in cellular regeneration because they were able to cure cancer while the earlier ones were not (but the cancer still didn’t kill you, which is interesting.) But I was okay with the McGuffin personally; largely I think because I also read a lot of fantasy. I don’t really care how it works, to be honest. I accept that in this universe that’s the way it works, and on I go.

In the middle of the Space Race there were thought to be two major obstacles to interstellar flight; a way to overcome and/or create gravity, and the amount of time it takes to get between places in such a vast universe. Blish’s solution was people who don’t age and spindizzies. Which also inadvertently solved the radiation problem, which is one of the big concerns that is currently delaying a manned mission to Mars; apparently outside of the Earth and Moon’s magnetic field there’s a whole slew of radiation from the sun that’s really harmful to us. I’m not even sure they were aware of all that in the 1960s, when those two books were written, but that problem is solved at any rate.

I’ve also read some arguments against some other aspects of the technology being obsolete, such as the use of vacuum tubes, but here I don’t agree because there’s some very good arguments for using vacuum tubes in deep space. Consider how computers and satellites malfunction when there’s a major solar flare; do you want that happening to the computers upon which your life depends in deep space? Yeah, didn’t think so.
Still, to some extent I feel we must accept that classic sci-fi is often, by nature, going to have bad science, because our knowledge of how things actually work has increased considerably over the past two hundred years, and in exponential ways. Let’s not forget that Jules Verne, Mary Shelley and H.G. Wells were writing perfectly acceptable science fiction for their time.

However, as I said, I can see why that lack of explanation about the anti-aging drugs could diminish enjoyment of the books and I think that’s perfectly reasonable. Especially when the physics and quantum physics were so excellently done! Blish’s explanation for anti-gravity, and dealing with anti-matter, stands the test of time even today, even after all we’ve discovered about those subjects since.

The conclusion was fascinating, and also how the characters reacted to it was great. Overall, despite some significant literary flaws, mostly I think in the inconsistency in styles between the stories, I really enjoyed these books, and I see why they are considered to be classics of science fiction. Highly recommended!

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Legendary Planet: A Fantasy Space Kickstarter!

Legendary Games brings you an epic sword & planet adventure saga for Pathfinder and 5th Edition that takes you across the multiverse!

Check out the Kickstarter here!

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Spelljammer on Pintrest

Ahoy there, spacefarers!  I thought I would share a couple of fantastic Spelljammer-related Pintrest boards with you.

Spelljammer Settings on Pintrest by Bill Dodrill

Spelljammer Races by Bill Dodrill

Spelljammer Shared Board (Sable Aradia, Dale Norman, Silverblade the Enchanter, Deryn Naythas, Adam Miller, W Keith Baldwin IV)

Book Excerpt: Haunted

Shaundar and Yathar stood with Sylria on Queenie’s Castle Deck, smoking cigars together.  They’d stopped smoking pipes because it was just too time consuming to load and light, and a waste of perfectly good tobacco if they were suddenly called into action, which happened more and more frequently.  The cigars were cheap and slightly sour – the best they could generally do on their Lieutenant’s pay – but Shaundar was becoming almost affectionately attached to them.

Supply lines were becoming more strained, too.  Occasionally, the alu’quesst ration was being supplemented with the human creation of grog.  Shaundar was not fond of it and generally chose not to have his allotted taut when that was what was available.  But he didn’t complain.  Nobody did.  That was just what there was.

They were in orbit around the Karpri space station, along with the burnt-out hulks of a Scorpion and an Ogre Mammoth, and a Hammership that was technically a prize but would likely be pressed into Navy service, depriving them of their shares.  The prisoners – survivors, is more like it, Shaundar thought privately – were few enough to be kept comfortably in the Hammership’s hold.  They had been exceptionally meek.  This was making the Matey jumpy, but Shaundar had no doubt that it was no act.

The Karpri station showed recent signs of battle to go with its ancient scars from when the illithid had destroyed it just after the First Unhuman War.  Shaundar felt badly for it.  The starfly plants that comprised it seemed deeply saddened.  Or maybe he was just being maudlin.  He was not sure what had possessed the scro to decide to take it.  Surely they must have guessed that there would be a reason that the elves had not used it themselves, now that war had returned to Realmspace?

The Queen’s Dirk had been sent to stop them, and stop them they had, but by the time they had arrived, the enemy had already landed and all hands not actively manning the helm were forced to become a boarding party.  Shaundar shook his head to banish yesterday’s images of screaming and blood from his mind.  Ship battles could be brutal but they were rarely so personal.  He wondered how Yathar managed it, being a marine. Continue reading

Wyrdon’s Wards

As the melting-pot of the Known Spheres, the Rock of Bral is an ideal place for unusual characters PCs might not ordinarily encounter in groundling campaigns. Presented here is a giant wizard who can be an antagonist or ally for a party of adventurers, and can easily slide between the two roles. Note that familiarity with the 2nd Edition Forgotten Realms product Giantcraft is helpful, but not necessary to use this character.

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The Giff Sphere – The World of Garrison (II)

World type: Spherical rocky
Size: E (equatorial diameter of 12 844km)
Breakaway: 3 rounds
Rotation: 96 hours
Revolution: 1284 days
Moon: Barracks
Population: 8,458,227 Giff, 420,114 Silekh
Magic weaving: Cramped, divine magic dominant
Pantheon: Knappak
Garrison is a gigantic mountainous range extending from one pole to the other, and whose highest peaks rising to several thousand meters. Icy winds blow through deep gorges which develops a primitive fauna of giant reptiles. Number of mountains have huge cave systems through which flow rivers to raging currents, Garrison landscapes are breathtaking and never seem to be altered by the industrious Giff.
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