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.

View all my reviews

Crew of the Reverie (Remembrance)

Elven StingerGriim (ogre male): AL N; W5; hp 15; AC 10; #AT 1; DMG 2-9; SZ L; STR 17, INT 17
Notable Possessions: Bo staff, Lens of Speed Reading, Periapt of Wound Closure

Not long ago, Griim was a simple ogre sage and scribe of minor note in Steelspace. He was part of a minor order of scribes based out of a derelict mammoth near Corrukai. Griim was training in the fields of history (Steelspace) and Known Sphere cultures. He was part of a group of about two dozen scribes, serving under one Gistor the Gray, an elderly ogre magi. He was dislodged from his relatively comfortable life about four years ago.

The group was visited by Makamo the Glutton, an ogre bushi who came looking for answers to a burning question of his. Much research would be required, so Makamo was allowed to stay in the guest quarters while Gistor researched his books for the answers Makamo sought. Over the course of the next week, many of Gistor’s scribes and servants disappeared. Griim feared the worse, and his suspicions were realized when spied Makamo hunched over Gistor’s corpse, devouring it greedily. Griim and the remaining scribes fled to the cargo hold, where the Remembrance was being stored (Gistor had purchased it a few years ago as a curiosity). Fearful of Makamo’s wrath should he learn that Griim had escaped his grisly feast, Griim fled Steelspace and made his way to the Known Spheres.

Griim uses Change Self spells to disguise his true nature. He usually uses the disguise of a half-orc courier wizard to earn enough coin to survive. Despite his self-banishment from his homesphere of Steelspace, Griim is actually having a good time. He sees it all as a grand adventure, a chance to study up close all of the cultures, kingdoms, and races he’s read about in his master’s scrolls and books. He rather enjoys his freedom from his master’s harsh gaze.

Krosh (hobgoblin male): AL N; Scribe 2; hp 7; AC 10; #AT 1; DMG 1-8; SZ M; STR 10, DEX 14, INT 15
Notable Possessions: Bo staff, signet ring, writing equipment, potion of healing

As a young hobgoblin, Krosh was the runt of the family. Considered good for nothing, his clan sold him to Gistor, and Krosh became a simple scribe under his tutelage. Even as an adult, Krosh is very small for a hobgoblin, both shorter than normal at only 5’11” tall, and weaker than typical. He is quite the pacifist, preferring to sit and chat over herbal tea rather than resorting to violence. Much like Griim, he finds the Known Spheres fascinating, despite the inhabitants being uncouth, uncivilized barbarians. Krosh knows how to handle the wing-sails and his duties are to manage them.

Krosh appears much like a peasant in his mid-twenties from Wa, save that his skin color is a shade of light orange, fairly close to the color of a ripe apricot. Krosh wears sandals, a simple peasant tunic and breeches, and a broad straw hat that helps obscure his unusual skin coloration.

Sakka (hobgoblin female): AL N(C); Scribe 3; hp 8; AC 10; #AT 1; DMG 1-4; SZ M; INT 16, WIS 14, CHA 13
Notable Possessions: Dagger, writing equipment, Quill of Neverending Ink, Spectacles of Comprehending Languages

Bookish, quiet, shy, and “wall flower” all described Sakka, one of Gistor’s underling scribes. Getting away from Steelspace’s structured society has liberated Sakka. When the crew pulled into Bral for supplies and work, she walked the streets like a wide-eyed child, taking in the sights. It is perhaps a small miracle she did not get mugged, but it is likely her meager possessions did not attract any attention.

Sakka is short, 5’6” tall, and has dark orange skin and long, black hair. She is not unattractive, all things considered, but certainly no exotic beauty. She has traded in her drab peasant clothes for attire more commonly worn by the aperusa. Her favorite is a colorful dress, but she has more practical clothes as well. Sakka is near-sighted, which she corrects by wearing spectacles.

Sakka is much more aggressive than Krosh, and knows how to load and fire the catapult. It is actually something she takes pride in, since Krosh does not, and often teases him about it.

Brakkdor (bugbear male): AL LN; Bushi 3; hp 31; AC 5; #AT 3/2; DMG 6-11; SZ L; STR 18/22, CON 16
Notable Possessions: Shikomi-zue (double-bladed) +1, leather lamellar, Ring of Protection +1

Brakkdor is the crew’s ‘heavy’, the only one who is actually trained in combat. A bugbear from Korryl, he was hired on as part of Gistor’s security. When Makamo murdered Gistor, he first knocked Brakkdor unconscious in a swift, dishonorable blow from behind. As Griim and the others fled, they discovered the unconscious Brakkdor, and carried him to safety. When he awoke, Brakkdor was enraged, but even he realized how badly outmatched he was against the likes of Makamo, and sullenly accepted the self-imposed banishment the rest of the group agreed upon. Although he would dearly love to extract revenge on Makamo, he knows that ogre is far beyond his skills and does not allow thoughts of revenge to consume his every waking moment.

Since leaving Steelspace, Brakkdor is probably the most uncomfortable of the Remembrance’s crew to their new life in the Known Spheres. Everywhere he sees enemies, people that would do him and the people he protects harm. Of course, being a seven foot tall very hairy humanoid does not help matters, for most people treat him as a scary monster. Ironically, Brakkdor is surprisingly gentle for a bugbear, and Sakka has noted that he has a soft spot in his heart for children, regardless of race.

Brakkdor’s Shikomi-zue appears as an iron staff with a length of about six feet. With a simple twist of the handle, it can produce foot-long blades from either end of the shaft. This special weapon normally causes 1d6+1 points of damage, either bludgeoning (as a staff) or piercing (the spear tips). Brakkdor is specialized in its use. He also knows martial arts, so he is never completely disarmed.

Tarn Rabbittoe (kender male): AL NG; Handler 6; hp 28; AC 8; #AT 1; DMG 1-6; SZ S; DEX 16; CHA 12
Notable Possessions: Hoopak, lock picks

Tarn stands out with the rest of the crew, as he is neither a native of Steelspace, nor is he a humanoid. He is a kender, which in some peoples’ minds, make him by far the most dangerous member of the crew. This, in some ways, is a very true statement.

Tarn met up with the crew while they were docked at the Rock of Bral. He encountered Sakka while she was wandering the streets, and after some small talk, the two became fast friends. Both share a fascination with wildspace and the myriad of cultures of the Known Spheres. Tarn, of course, hails from Kendermore, and managed to stow away on an odd ship while it was docked in Balifor. He had been wandering the docks of wildspace for almost a decade before he met the crew of the Remembrance, and has become a guide of sorts to them. His knowledge of wildspace and its dangers has kept the crew out of the worst danger, although he still loves a little mischief every now and again to keep things interesting. He genuinely cares for the crew, and would never knowingly endanger them, although he is a bit scatter-brained and often oblivious to danger.

By Adam “Night Druid” Miller

The Reverie (Remembrance,) Part 1

elvenskipperReverie (Remembrance)

Elven Stinger

Built By: Elves

Used Primarily By: Ogres

Tonnage: 7 tons

Hull Points: 7

Crew: 2/7 (5)

Maneuver Class: B

Landing-Land: Yes

Landing-Water: Yes

Armor Rating: 8

Saves As: Ceramic

Power Type: Splendid Sails

Ship’s Rating: 2

Standard Armament:

Light catapult (A; Crew 2)

Cargo: 3 tons

Keel Length: 100’

Beam Length: 20’


The Reverie (Common translation: Remembrance) is hardly what many people would consider a ‘ship’; it is more akin to a boat for a larger craft much like a flitter or a mosquito. It indeed looks like an enlarged flitter, big enough to carry multiple crewmen while not being large enough to be considered a true ship.

The Remembrance is an elven stinger, an ancient design from the earliest days of elven exploration. The stinger is rarely seen today, usually confined to elven-dominated spheres such as Darnannon. It is too lightly armed and armored for most captains’ tastes. Some stingers are used by couriers for long-distance message delivery between elven colonies and Armada, but little else.

The Remembrance looks like an oversized flitter, with a black body and wings, with cobalt-blue highlights. There is a single interior deck and a small top deck. There is only one weapon, a light catapult set to fire at pursuing ships. The Remembrance is not designed for battle, and would be easily defeated by anything more powerful than a dragonfly.

Top Deck

  1. Hatch: The hatch to the main deck can be bolted from the inside.
  2. Bowsprit: A small Continual Light Lantern that sheds a soft light down upon the deck is located here. The light shed by the lantern is about as bright as a full moon.
  3. Catapult: The Remembrance’s only armament, a light catapult, is set to fire in a rear-ward arc. It is movable such that it could be fired in any arc, but this requires a good deal of muscle and takes about five minutes.
  4. Ammunition: This crate is bolted to the deck. It holds eighteen round stones that weigh about forty pounds each (ammunition for the catapult). The crate has a simple latch to keep the lid closed, but otherwise is unlocked.

Main Deck

  1. Hatch: The hatch to the top deck can be bolted from here. A ladder leads up to the top deck.
  2. Bridge: The Bridge of the Remembrance is fairly bare. There is a simple mapping table with charts to about half a dozen spheres (none Steelspace) and a Telescope of Planetary Location. The Telescope is a primitive version of the Planetary Locator. When a person gazes through the telescope, it directs the viewer towards the nearest planet of size A or larger, and shows the viewer a fuzzy image of the planet and a general distance in days of travel. Once per day, the viewer can view another planet so long as he knows the generally accepted name of the planet. There is also a pair of chairs in front of the windows for stargazing.
  3. Galley: The Remembrance’s galley is fairly advanced, thanks to an upgrade by Gistor before he died. There is a small, magical stove that can be commanded to become very hot three times per day, enough to prepare a simple meal. There are four barrels in this room (grog, apples, citrus fruit, and salted pork), several sacks of flour, and the usual pots, pans, skillets, and knives to prepare a meal. The Remembrance usually carries enough food to keep the crew fed for four months.
  4. Captain’s Cabin: The captain’s cabin has been claimed by Griim. It has a long bed, specially built to accommodate Griim’s eight-foot tall frame. There is also a writing desk, a trunk of clothes, and a small coffer with 500 gp in various currencies (to pay for docking fees). There is also a bookshelf with more than a dozen books written by Griim on life in the Known Spheres. These books detail the people and cultures he has encountered, with little attention to defenses or battle-readiness of non-ogres. As such they are completely useless to the ogres of Steelspace.
  5. Crew Quarters: The four-man crew shares this room. There are four hammocks and four sea chests for the crews’ belongings. A silk screen decorated with an oriental-style dragon is in one corner, to allow Sakka some privacy when she changes. There is a writing desk and more than two dozen books on a shelf, all detailing life in the Known Spheres. There is a small table with a drawer that contains dozens of colorful ceramic tiles – useful for play Mahjong and Go! Griim and Krosh often play against one another; when sailing in deep space, their games can last hours.
  6. Privy: This tiny cubby of a room has a Chamber Pot of Devouring and Cleanliness (a magically enchanted chamber pot that not only disposes of waste but also cleans the backside with a spray of water and hot air) and an Incense Burner of Neverending Delightful Scents (Jasmine-scented).
  7. Cargo Hold: The cargo hold of the Remembrance is quite small, only capable of holding small amounts of cargo.
  8. Companionway: The companionway is lit by two small glowing globes, both putting off light equal to moonlight. They can be shuttered to show no light at all.

By Adam “Night Druid” Miller