Monday, September 12, 2011

Review of "Gateway" by Frederick Pohl

At heart a psychological drama which explores one man’s attempts at dealing with the negative aspects of existentialism (what Sarte called “nausea”), Gateway nonetheless utilizes the tools of science fiction for effect.  Less than 300 pages, the tropes of each are blended perfectly in succinct fashion so as to satisfy the readers of both genres.  An outline of the books is as follows.

After finding an abandoned alien base deep in an asteroid, humanity has learned the basics of piloting the remaining spaceships.  Emphasis on the word “basics,” not all the important details of light speed have been mastered, with the result people are sent shooting into space as “prospectors,” not knowing where the coordinates they’ve set will lead or if they’ll even make it back to the base.  For those who do come back, reward is not a guarantee, either.  Alien artifacts can help a person become rich, but as so few come back with any, is it worth the risk of dying alone in space?  Into this roulette wheel lifestyle comes the protagonist , Robinette, a man who feels he has nothing to live for on earth, so why not take a chance in the stars.  Told in alternating chapters, the reader takes turns absorbing the third person details of Robin’s time on the base and in space and his sessions with a computer psychologist that take place an unknown time after.  Not as corny as it sounds, Pohl plays the computer psychologist/A.I. off well, nothing predictable or preachy about technology in the machine’s nature.  So unimportant to the story, the question could be asked whether it was not human after all.  The third person narrative and flashback style sessions moving closer as the book progresses, the climax offers a satisfying conclusion to the story.

Feeling lost and purposeless, Pohl’s tale of a man lost is as human as stories come.  The fear and paranoia Robin experiences not knowing whether this will be the end each time he launches in one of the alien vessels serves to drive him deeper into uncertainty regarding life.  His love life, sense of direction, and even grip on reality all become drastically skewed the more time he spends in space.  A parody on the state of affairs in the US when the book was written (1977), Pohl’s post-modern story of a man equivocating in an increasingly subjective world transcends the sci-fi setting to comment directly on a state of affairs, that, if anything, has only become more relative in the decades since.  

As such, Pohl took aim, fired and hit a bulls-eye from a thematic point of view.  Robin, the blue-collar anti-hero caught in a web of his own design – alcohol, sex, drugs – and his attempts to free himself from the world of choice strike a chord with modern society.  Despite the spaceships flying around and alien artifacts, this is what makes the story true literature.  Secondary themes include the value of pain and suffering and exploitative nature of capitalism.  Short and sweet, Gateway comes recommended for those enjoying science fiction with depth and purpose.

(This review has also been posted at


  1. One of my favourites - and for all the right reasons.

    . . . and that cover! Vallejo at his best.

    1. It is the best of Pohl I've read so far, but I've heard that Jem may be equally as good. Have you read it?