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: A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs

A Princess of Mars (Barsoom, #1)A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Edgar Rice Burroughs, the writer who gave us Tarzan, published this novel first as a magazine serial and then released it as a completed novel later on. It’s always an interesting experience to read classic sci-fi, especially when it’s this classic. This pulp legend is loaded with so many tropes it might make the modern reader toss it aside in disgust; except that none of these were tropes when this book was written. And why are they tropes? Because they were amazingly successful and popular, and thousands of writers who succeeded Burroughs tried to imitate what made the John Carter books what they were. These, along with C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy, were the primordial space operas.

John Carter, ex-civil war soldier and Southern gentleman, is mystically transported to the planet Mars in a fashion that feels more like fantasy than science fiction to the modern reader, except that almost everything that happens after that is sci-fi to the core. John Carter finds that as a denizen of Earth he is considerably stronger and can leap incredible distances compared to the native Martians, who are adapted to Mars’ lesser gravity; which, of course, would be exactly what would happen by all laws of physics and biology, if Mars were actually inhabited (though this is also ignored in some places; for instance, Martian riding beasts have no trouble carrying John Carter, although he is certainly more dense, and therefore much heavier, than the people of Mars, which is called “Barsoom” by its inhabitants.)

Carter initially finds himself among the savage green men, who are twelve to sixteen foot tall green, four-armed aliens with great tusks like orcs; where he, through a strange combination of coincidences and misunderstanding of social custom, finds himself both a prisoner and a chieftain; and he teaches the green men about friendship, loyalty and benevolence, which are qualities they have forgotten because limited resources on the dying world of Mars have demanded a more savage way of life of its denizens. Then he ends up meeting the more human-like, more technologically and culturally advanced (but smaller and weaker) red men of Mars, where he meets the princess who motivates him to acts of heroism that read like mythology; which of course also make the John Carter books the primordial planetary romance.

As a modern reader I found that I was impressed by much of the implied technology, which included but was not limited to anti-gravity vehicles, terraforming, and the rudiments of nuclear power and plasma weaponry (described as being powered by radium or something similar.)

Aside from the fact that this standard story formula has become the essence of the default science fiction plotline and setting (clearly guiding, among other things, the standard plots of the original Star Trek series,) I can see so many direct influences in many other ways. The Gor novels are essentially Barsoom updated, kinkified and taken to the extreme; the Dark Sun novels borrow the “savage world of limited resources” setting whole-hock, and I think we even get the fact that Mork hatched from an egg from this novel, since the people of Barsoom are born thus. We even get our scantily-clad heroes and heroines from Burroughs’ work; the Martians wear jewelry and combat harness, but not clothing.

There is much to irritate the modern reader if you allow it to. Racism and sexism is rampant, as is the hypocritical logic of Colonialism, and as I’ve said, it’s full of what have become tropes. The writing of the time is prone to contrived plot conveniences and dei ex machinae. There’s a lot of telling and not showing, which of course is considered bad writing by modern convention. And yet it’s a damn good read that keeps you pressing on to the very last page. It took me only a day to burn through it even though I don’t have as much time to read as I would like on working days.

Refreshing, however, to the modern reader, is the fact that despite his Colonialism, John Carter is a man who tries always to do the right thing as he sees it at the time, and in this age of dystopias and anti-heroes, this is like a breath of fresh air. And the style is an easy read that is appropriate for everyone from teens to octogenarians and up.

Everyone who considers themselves a sci-fi or fantasy fan should read this book, whose influence is clearly underrated. Despite, or perhaps especially because of, the tropes.

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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: Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis

Out of the Silent Planet (Space Trilogy, #1)Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I have found that in looking at descriptions of this book, it is often “dismissed” as “theology.” I think that does this book a grave disservice. Certainly there are theological themes; it is well known that Lewis was a devout Christian, wrote about it, and his fiction also often focused on Christian themes. But one never hears his classic Chronicles of Narnia being *classified* as “theology,” although of course the main tale is the retelling of Biblical themes in many ways. No one hears that about Lord of the Rings as written by his friend J.R.R. Tolkien either; though literary critics point it out. And in the realm of science fiction, while literary critics, again, do not miss the references, no one *classifies* Ender’s Game or Dune as “theology.” Perhaps this has something to do with the rest of the trilogy, which I have not read, but taken alone I don’t understand this.

Out of the Silent Planet is among the most awesome science fiction books I think I’ve ever had the pleasure to read, and I think the only reason it’s not considered a classic in the field is because of the bias of “pure reason.” Keep in mind that this book was written in 1938, so one cannot expect that it should conform to modern science in the wake of the Space Age. But its science is actually spot on when founded in scientific theories that were, as yet, untested at the time of this book’s writing; much like Frankenstein and War of the Worlds.

The protagonist, a professor of languages named Ransom, finds himself kidnapped in a misadventure to be taken to Mars (called by a different name by its inhabitants) to be offered to those inhabitants as a sacrifice. It turns out that this is not what the inhabitants want him for and a fantastic adventure ensues. I expect that why it’s often interpreted as “theology” is because Lewis uses the Christian mythology as a framework for an extraterrestrial cosmology that involves beings that might possibly be described as “extra-dimensional”. That this extra-dimensional understanding involves godlike beings who are the “lords” of the worlds they inhabit, and that this is fairly consistent as an extraterrestrial interpretation of Christian cosmology, is almost incidental; the moral cautionary tale, however, is not. But if you’re going to not consider a book seriously because there’s a moral cautionary tale hidden in it, you might as well give up on the genre.

Lewis’ Martians are among the most interesting aliens I’ve ever had the pleasure to read about. The cultures he created, and the difficulties in a human trying to understand, and be understood by, an alien culture, is the stuff that we geeks read this genre for. Ransom spends a great deal of time among the Martian cultures and learns their ways and their language (remember that he is a professor of languages) and he develops a close friendship with one member of the three sentient races that inhabit Mars, while in the meantime he is pursued by the two men who brought him to the planet in the first place; one of whom views himself as a man of intelligence and reason who wants to ensure the immortality of humanity — at all costs, including that of the sentient species who inhabit Mars and any others that might exist — and the other of which is interested solely in money. Unlike many other books in which the “peaceful primitives” are overwhelmed by the warlike humans that invade them, thus requiring defense by a violent action-hero protagonist, the Martians find the humans incomprehensible and ultimately silly. This does not make them any less a danger to Ransom, however.

Lewis’ vast alien Martian landscape, as imagined by a man who had only seen a blurry pink image with dark blotches and ice caps on it through a telescope at that point, was an absolute delight. And solar radiation was more potent outside of the Earth’s atmosphere, gravity was minimal and artificially created and air was limited in the spaceship, and Mars was cold, had lesser gravity, and thin oxygen at its higher elevations. Lewis’s low gravity Martian landscape was truly fantastic, more like the crazy surface of comets as we are currently familiar with them. I was taken by its beauty and the scope of its imagination.

In short, read it. It was amazing.

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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!

Scientists find evidence of hot springs beneath icy surface of tiny Saturn moon

This June 28, 2009 image provided by NASA, taken by the international Cassini spacecraft, shows Enceladus, one of Saturn’s moons. (AP / NASA)

Read the story at this link. Exciting stuff for us Spelljammer fans: what a perfect world for orcs or drow to inhabit!