Visions of Paradise

Sunday, November 08, 2009


My friend George reads a lot of science fiction, and we have regular discussions about the genre. Ironically, he is the only friend I have ever had that I can share my love of sf with, and I hope I do not lose touch with him after I retire at the end of this year.

Recently he was raving about how much he loved the Gateway trilogy: Gateway, Beyond the Blue Event Horizon, and Heechee Rendezvous. I told him in reply that Gateway was one of my favorite sf novels ever (I picked it as my best novel of the 1970s), but that I had never read the concluding novel in the series, nor any of the three follow-up books (Annals of the Heechee–a fairly universally-disliked book–and the two collections of Heechee stories, The Gateway Trip–which includes “The Merchants of Venus,” the first Heechee story I ever read, and a very fine one at that–and The Boy Who Would Live Forever).

The next day in my mailbox was a paperback copy of Heechee Rendezvous, so I decided this was as good a time as any to read the entire trilogy. I actually read Gateway twice, first in serial form in Galaxy Magazine (one of the last great stories in it before it totally fell apart after Jim Baen quit as editor), then again a few years later when the paperback version came out. But while my memory of the book still considers it a masterpiece, we all know how thirty+ year old memories have a way of letting us down.

Fortunately, Gateway held up very well. The novel has two simultaneous storylines: one of them tells about Robinette Broadhead’s weekly trips to a psychiatrist to deal with his depression. Gradually, his discussions with the psychiatrist–which is a machine–reveal that he is repressing some deep secret from his past, and that it likely has something to do with the time he spent at Gateway.

Gateway is an asteroid which was hollowed out millennia ago by the mysterious race known as the Heechee, and then filled with survey ships. Humans have not yet learned much about either the survey ships or the Heechee, except how to launch a ship. Volunteers then go in the ships to wherever they are programmed to go. If they are very lucky, they discover some ancient Heechee artifacts for which they are paid generously, but those are rare instances. In the majority of instances, they either return empty-handed or, a large percentage of the time, die.

So Gateway mostly attracts the down-and-out, people unable to succeed either on Earth or Venus, and whose desperation takes them to a place where they are more likely to die than to get rich. Such as Broadhead. Soon after he reaches Gateway, his fear of death holds him back from actually signing up for a survey ship for a long while, but we still follow his interactions with other gold-diggers, as well as his exploration of Gateway itself.

Gateway is an intriguing place. Broadhead’s time there is fascinating, and many of its inhabitants truly come to life. The survey trips, both Broadhead's and those of others, are also fascinating. Pohl has successfully created a locale which is rich in sense of wonder, yet a launching site for a gripping yarn. The scenes between Broadhead and the psychiatrist are also interesting and form a very involving mystery.

After thirty years, I still recommend Gateway highly, and still consider it one of the finest sf novels I have ever read.


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