The Heechee Saga
by Frederik Pohl
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
1. Gateway / 2. Beyond the Blue Event Horizon / 3. Heechee Rendezvous
4. Annals of the Heechee / 5. The Gateway Trip / 6. The Boy Who Would Live Forever
Frederik Pohl's Gateway was originally serialized in Galaxy in three parts, November and December 1976, then March '77. First book publication came on March 1, 1977 from St. Martin's Press, with later print runs through Ballantine/Del Rey Books. According to Wikipedia, a concluding chapter deleted from the book was later published in Galaxy in August '77, but I'm not sure if that was ever incorporated into later book editions. I need to track down that issue to be sure. Gateway won practically every award for which it was eligible: Hugo, Nebula, John W. Campbell Memorial, Locus, Prix Apollo. It may have been a finalist for the British SF Association trophy, but everywhere I searched there was only information about the winners up until 1980. Unlike with the previous Pohl novel I reviewed, Man Plus, this one stands the test of time. Also unlike other previous re-reads of older novels, I had retained vivid memories of it even though I am sure I had only read it once before. I've rated it 5 stars on Goodreads.
It seems that a million or so years ago an alien race had visited our solar system. It's possible they came to Earth, but it would have been long before humanity rose to intelligence. Sometime in our future one of their space craft is discovered in a tunnel on Venus. The lucky (or unlucky) discoverer was able to get it to the surface and activate the engines. He had no way to control its trajectory, but ended up at an asteroid that revolved around our sun in an eccentric orbit, almost perpendicular to the plane of the ecliptic. There he found many more ships of various sizes, but next to no other signs of the aliens, which became known as the Heechee. He was able to radio his discovery, but died from starvation and/or oxygen depletion before he could be rescued. Later experiments proved that the ships could be launched on pre-programmed trajectories, some of which yielded other Heechee artifacts, but as of the time encompassed in the novel, the Heechee themselves were nowhere to be found. Some of the ships never returned, or returned empty, or with its passengers dead. The first to return with artifacts were able to sell them for enough to be set for life. Then the Gateway Corporation was established, offering bonuses and royalties for major finds. Unfortunately, there were no guarantees, with fewer than 40% of explorers returning alive, with or without artifacts.
At once a grand adventure in the sense-of-wonder style of Golden Age SF, it is also a penetrating look at the inner-space of the protagonist, first-person narrator Robinette "Bob" Broadhead. There are some reviews that brand Broadhead as an unsympathetic character, and in some ways that would be correct. However, viewed from the perspective of his early life before he came to Gateway, he is sympathetic, or at least his actions can be understood. From the beginning, we know he was successful in amassing a fortune through his Gateway experience. He lives in a luxurious penthouse underneath the New York City Dome, with other properties around the world, and many business investments that bring substantial dividends. Then why has he voluntarily entered psychoanalysis? What are his anxieties, his guilts? The book alternates between his descriptions of his life on Gateway and his three missions, and his therapy sessions with an AI he has named Sigfrid von Shrink. His father had died when he was very young, and his mother never remarried. The AI therapist continually asks him to recount his dreams, as well as his relationships with his mother and other women later in his life, both on Earth and on Gateway. Thus we know there is tragedy in his past, that he was psychologically damaged long before he came to Gateway, but it takes the entire book for him to relate that through his exposition in therapy. Does anything he did or said condemn him, or exculpate him from the guilt he has buried deep within him? Each reader has to decide for themselves. In spite of his frequent selfishness, his seeming cowardice, even violent behavior towards others, I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. He's not really guilty of what he considers the ultimate betrayal, but other readers might decide differently.
Something I was unaware of until just a few days ago, but Gateway was not the first of Pohl's stories to mention the Heechee. That would be the novella "The Merchants of Venus," published in the July/August 1972 issue of Worlds of IF. Later that year it was included in his collection The Gold at Starbow's End, which I don't have, and it's out of print at this time. I'm not sure if I've ever read it, even though I now have it in the #5 title listed above, The Gateway Trip, published in 1990 but also out of print. I can't recall if I even started the second novel in this series, or if I finished it if so. I will eventually return to this page when I get around to it, but with so many other books, new and old, on my TBR pile, I have no idea when that might be. For now, just know that Gateway, as disturbing as it is in several scenes, is still a very good book, highly recommended.
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