Visions of Paradise

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Beyond the Blue Event Horizon

There is probably nothing more difficult in writing than following a classic, and I can cite numerous examples where the author’s next work, although good objectively, still suffered by comparison to the previous one: China Miéville’s The Scar (following Perdito Street Station), Roger Zelazny’s Creatures of Light and Darkness (following Lord of Light), Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren (following Nova), Ursula K Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven (first “adult” novel following The Left Hand of Darkness), and the list goes on...

An even more difficult challenge for an author is writing a direct sequel to a classic novel, because then he or she is not only competing with greatness, but trying to “continue” it to some extent. I enjoyed Frank Herbert’s Dune Messiah, but it was nowhere near the quality of Dune. Philip José Farmer pulled off a rare near-coup in that The Fabulous Riverboat was very nearly the equal of To Your Scattered Bodies Go.

And then along comes Frederik Pohl, a journeyman writer in the 1970s best known for his 1950s collaborative novels with Cyril M. Kornbluth whom many readers assumed was the “senior” member of their writing partnership. Pohl’s main acclaim was as an editor, first of the seminal original anthology series Star Science Fiction in the 1950s, and then as editor in the 1960s of the Galaxy stable of magazines: Galaxy, Worlds of IF and Worlds of Tomorrow.

So when he decided to retire as prozine editor after Galaxy was sold in 1969 and return to fulltime writing, few people had particularly high hopes for his fiction. His first splash was with the novella “The Gold at the Starbow’s End,” and the short story “Shafferty Among the Immortals” in 1972, followed by a surprising Nebula Award for his novel Man Plus in 1976. But what really blew the socks off sf fandom was the serial Gateway in Galaxy Magazine in late 1976. It swept all the major awards and was instantly considered a classic, an opinion I agreed with since I selected it as my favorite novel of the 1970s.

But Gateway was not a singleton. It was a sequel to the very good novella “The Merchants of Venus,” which was published in 1972 but was largely lost among the acclaim for “The Gold at the Starbow’s End,” and “Shafferty Among the Immortals.” What Pohl had in mind though was even more stories and novels which would continue the story of the quest to find the missing Heechee.

Beyond the Blue Event Horizon was the direct sequel to Gateway, and it is actually a very fine novel. Its primary concern is an expedition to a Heechee artifact orbiting slowly at the edge of the solar system which produces enough food to virtually end poverty on Earth, except its discoverers cannot figure out how to move the artifact out of its orbit and bring it to Earth. They also encounter a boy Wan who lives in another Heechee artifact where he is advised by the minds of former Gateway explorers, one of whom was apparently his mother.

This is a considerably faster-paced novel than Gateway, and it features a somewhat more-mature Robin Broadhead, who was the protagonist of the former novel. There are political and personal tribulations in addition to the mission of exploration, as well as alien beings who might or might not be the Heechee. It all comes to a very satisfying conclusion. What is most fascinating about the novel though is that the search for the Heechee actually succeeds, and while the secret is held out until the very last pages of the book, there is still the novel’s title to consider.

If you have not read Gateway yet, then you definitely should. And once you are finished reading it, you can do a lot worse than reading Beyond the Blue Event Horizon soon afterwards.