Gateway / Frederick Pohl
Since it’s the day after Christmas I’ve decided to feature a book about how we live in a desolate, dangerous universe where everyone you love will most likely die an arbitrary and meaningless death.
Gateway is an interesting book to read in 2015. It has a lot of good and interesting ideas, but the plot is predicated on a psychological model that feels horribly outdated.
There are some other novels set in the same universe but so far Gateway is the only one I’ve read so I can’t really speak to its value as an entry point.
Robinette Broadhead, former worker in the “food mines” is rich and famous. After multiple successful interstellar journeys he has retired to Earth. Deeply traumatized by his experiences, he avails himself of a computerized therapist.
So how is it?
It’s very good but deeply flawed. Gateway’s portrayal of space exploration is fascinating. Interstellar travel is possible only via the use of alien craft of unknown origin. It’s not even known how to refuel the craft or even how to figure out how much fuel is remaining. The vast majority of expeditions find empty space or don’t return at all. It’s an enigmatic setting and the way Pohl tells an entire story without ever giving any real answers is masterful.
Fully half the novel consists of Broadhead’s therapy sessions. Broadhead is deeply suspicious of his AI therapist and the AI’s motives remain in question for the vast majority of the book. That might turn some readers off, but it follows the “alternating chapters in two timelines” approach that helps keep things fresh. Interspersed throughout are personal ads, lecture transcripts, and other “primary source” documents that do a great deal to illuminate the culture of Gateway and the background of the story itself without too much exposition.
The biggest issue with Gateway is that it is, like all things, a product of its time. The core of the book is an exploration of Broadhead’s psychology. What that means is that some of the “explanations” we get later on are predicated on what are now largely discredited ideas about sexuality and psychological development. Published only two years after the APA statement that homosexuality is not a mental disorder and four years after the other APA removed homosexuality from the DSM, Gateway’s portrayal is fairly progressive but is deeply rooted in Freud’s theories on human development – theories that were 40 years out of date when Gateway was published.
I can appreciate Gateway for what it is but its reliance on an outdated theory of mind in a book featuring a high-tech future therapist breaks the immersion somewhat. It’s still a good book and one I enjoy but for that one thing.
This is an issue that happens frequently – see also the extremely 1950s social roles of Asimov’s The caves of steel. It’s not terrible but books like Stand on Zanzibar were able to portray a changing cultural landscape far more effectively.
Gateway is a book about exploration. The text itself is an exploration, both of Gateway and of Broadhead himself. The actual exploration that the characters themselves do is essentially meaningless and largely fruitless. It’s a book that paints a decidedly pessimistic picture of space exploration but for all its bleakness the book manages to avoid being depressing, on the whole.
Gateway is like Way station. It’s a book that I highly recommend to people looking for classics but otherwise I tend to stay away.
I’ve encountered a couple of essays lately about how young people today don’t read “the classics”. I think one of them was by Scalzi. Both of them presented complaining about how “kids these days” just don’t get “the classics” and how that’s somehow dumbing down the world of sf fandom. I’m glad, since it’s a ridiculous proposition and the reliance on using works 40+ years old to try and win new readers to the genre seems misguided at best. Sf is aggressively a product of its own time and in that light attempting to canonize some “golden age” and treat the genre like it needs to be experienced chronologically seems doomed to failure.
The point is I don’t think it’s a good idea to recommend anything older than 5-10 years when asked for generic recommendations, especially when it’s a recommendation for a young person. I could barely make it through Astronaut Jones in 1993; more than twenty years later the book has even less cultural relevance. I make partial exceptions for people who have actually lived through the era in question as they will generally have the first-hand experience of the cultural context necessary to truly get into the work.
To put it succinctly, as a rule generally avoid recommending books to people that are older than they are. The older the reader the more you can get away with bending that rule, and if you know the reader very well then obviously that knowledge should take precedence. There was one person I know, born in the 1990s, who refused to read any sf published after the mid-80s because they felt like more recent sf suffers from a “longer is better” mindset. They aren’t as restrictive now but that’s the type of person I recommend books like Gateway or Way station to.