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Gateway is without a doubt one of the most entertaining and readable books on this list. It’s a page-turner in the best sense of the word, with an ingenious set up, a relatable main character, a dash of humor and a sustained sense of tension and suspense that keeps you on edge throughout. Add to that Pohl’s gift for clear, concise and engaging writing (something Science Fiction is not always known for) and you have a highly satisfying read that is able to entertain while also displaying the wonder and imagination that Science Fiction IS known for. Frederik Pohl represents a middle ground when it comes to Sci-Fi writers. He’s not too “Hard,” not too “Soft,” and he has just the right combination of grand ideas and compelling story lines to make his work instantly compelling – and Gateway is one of the best examples of his gifts as a storyteller.
Gateway Summary: The titular “Gateway” is actually a giant asteroid that was hollowed out and converted into a sort-of launching platform a long time ago by an alien species known as the Heechee who have since vanished from the universe. Humanity also discovers that the Gateway contains close to a thousand starships, each pre-programmed to travel to a different point in the universe (although they have no idea which point or how long it will take to get there). Due to their lack of knowledge of the Heechee technology, humanity is forced to use “Volunteers” to man the spaceships as they are launched out into the unknown reaches of the galaxy in search of more Heechee artifacts or civilization. These volunteers are tempted by the prospect of wealth and riches resulting from a mission that is able to bring back a useful piece of technology, although most of them are never heard from again or are sent to places that are either lethal to humans or devoid of any useful discoveries. In effect, the Gateway is like a giant lottery, with adventuresome pioneers risking everything in the hopes of making the next big discovery.
Our hero Robinette Broadhead (or “Rob”) is first seen on Earth in a therapy session with a robot psychologist, playfully named Sigfrid von Shrink. Rob has become enormously wealthy as a result of one of the Gateway missions, but it is made clear that the events surrounding that mission have left him psychologically scarred and guilt-ridden, although for what reason we are not told. The rest of the story switches back and forth between Rob’s therapy sessions and the events that led up to that last fateful trip. The knowledge of the profound and disturbing effect that the experience had on him coupled with the fact that we know absolutely nothing about what actually happened makes for sustained dramatic tension throughout the book. While we know that he will eventually become rich, we don’t know which mission it will be on and what he will have to go through in order to complete it.
Gateway Review: One of the reasons that the story draws you in so quickly is that Rob is a generally likable and sympathetic character. As a miner on Earth, we wins a lottery that gives him enough money to travel to Gateway to try his luck and make his fortune. At first he is afraid to go out on a mission, and Pohl does a great job at getting us to empathize with his intense fear of being shot out into space with such as small chance of survival. While on Gateway, he meets a fellow adventurer named Klara who he falls in love with. Each of these things allows us to get us to care about Rob even more, and also serves to increase our dread at the tragic events that we know he will eventually be confronted with.
If you’re looking for a Science Fiction book that emphasizes story and character as much as scientific accuracy and lofty ideas, Gateway is a great choice. Compulsively readable and imaginative at the same time, Frederick Pohl’s most famous novel is one that you won’t want to put down until you’ve discovered all of its secrets.