Thursday, April 23, 2009


I'm in a science fiction state of mind. I was looking through my many “to be read” lists the other day and was drawn to the SF, and that brought me to Frederik Pohl. Pohl is one of science fiction's Grand Masters, one of the best known names in the genre. The Hugo and Nebula award winning Gateway is one of his best known works. Since it's publication in 1977 it has spawned several sequels and a couple of computer games.

The premise of Gateway is pretty clever. Mankind has found relics of a highly advanced alien civilization that once plied space in our solar system and well beyond. These long vanished aliens, called Heechee, left Gateway, a base built into an asteroid that has hundreds of faster-than-light spaceships ready to use. The only problem is that while we can fly them, we can't control them, we have no idea how they work, and we have no idea where we are going when we get into them. Prospectors, those who fly out of Gateway, could be flying into danger, death, or something really valuable. Every flight is a high stakes crapshoot.

In the hands of a good writer this is a terrific idea for building a science fiction story, and Fredrick Pohl is a very good writer. The novel's structure is unusual. Chapters alternate between the story of the main character, Bob Broadhead, and Bob discussing it years later with his computer-therapist, whom he has nicknamed Sigfried von Shrink. From this we learn early on that something happened on his last mission that left him very rich and very troubled. This device helps to build tension and anticipation as the reader looks forward to what will eventually happen and how Bob will deal with the aftermath. A couple of days ago I wrote that one of the things I love about science fiction was seeing interesting, well crafted characters face challenges beyond the routine. Bob is a fully realized character, occasionally crippled by fear, ridden by guilt, and fully equipped with a set of very human virtues, vices, and flaws.

Pohl sprinkles extra-narrative vignettes throughout the book that give the reader a feel for life on Gateway. The setting, the plot, the characters, the science, it's all there. It's a first rate fix for someone in a science fiction state of mind.

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