In the summer of 1981 when I turned 27 years of age, after the typical hiatus that so many go through after “growing up”, I rediscovered science fiction.
I’d started law school, was in the beginnings of my first truly serious relationship, and was looking towards the future. I was learning what it is that society demands of us, as well as learning what it is that women want. Both time intensive pursuits. For down time I turned, by reflex, to reading.
After a hiatus of an estrangement of over ten years, I began rediscovering the genre that I’d fallen in love while in elementary school, the slice of literature that was, for my money, the closest to rock-and-roll and poetry, twins of solace that had gotten me through many a hard time. The following ten years of reintroduction that followed were a period of rediscovery, delight, profound excitement.
I had grown up with Ray Bradbury, Robert Silverberg, Roger Zelazny, Robert Heinlein, Damon Knight, James Blish, and many more in this vein, all wondrous writers and of varying flavors. Bradbury was poetic and homey; Silverberg twisty and sardonic. I loved the challenging adventures and dissonant perspectives of SF, and even the art — quite often especially the art — that came with it. I began to discover writers that had been in full force when I’d first discovered SF in the early 1960’s, but whom I had not known of nor read: Samuel Delany, Harlan Ellison, Michael Moorcock, Barrington Bayley, J.G. Ballard, Phillip K. Dick, Ursula Le Guin, Arthur C. Clarke, Frank Herbert. And there were more (at the time) current writers in 1981 and the years to come.
For me, however, no writer touched me quite as profoundly as Frederik Pohl.
Prior to my discovering Pohl, and for quite some time, he’d been a juggernaut of a presence and power within the field. Editor, agent, author, literary collaborator, science autodidact extraordinaire, futurist and keen observer of the human condition.
Early on Pohl had attained an enviable level of literary fame that others within the field yearned for. Motivated by the 1953 publication of The Space Merchants, which had been penned along with his friend and collaborator Cyril M. Kornbluth, Pohl earned high praise from the likes of Kingsley Amis, Anthony Boucher and Groff Conklin.
After Kornbluth died in 1958, there were many who opined that the magic was gone, and that Pohl’s best days were behind him. He spent a decade, more or less, profoundly active in the SF field but producing little memorable writing.
It was not until the 1970’s that he got his second wind, an inspiration lasted well into the 2000’s. In 1996 he published Man Plus, and in 1977 the first of the Heechee series, Gateway, both novels Nebula award winners. In 1980 he won the National Book Award — an award usually reserved for the likes of Phillip Roth, John Updike, Saul Bellow and friends — for his novel Jem.
I’ve loved Pohl’s writing, both short stories and novels, but Gateway, which is probably his most famous novel and the one he’ll always be associated and remembered for, was the first of his many books which I read. As a growing man I still had my quotient of introversion and psychological metamorphic settling, and the text of this extraordinary novel was like a glass of ice water in the face, a slapping wake up call that took my imagination hostage, resonating with my ow personal history. It provided the sense of wonder and drama that I hungrily yearned for.
The novel is the story of a young man, Robinette Broadhead, troubled by the prospect of spending a life working the food shale mines. When the tale opens he’s broken-hearted over the rejection by his girlfriend, not to mention conflicted over the death of his mother for which he feels responsible; money which could have been used to get her a new lung was used instead for his psychotherapy necessitated by a breakdown. He finds that he wants to — no, needs to — escape. He wins a state lottery and is able to get a one-way ticket to Gateway.
Gateway is an asteroid that aliens (randomly christened as the Heechee, since they are long gone when the traces of their existence is discovered) had used as their long-abandoned base of nearly a thousand small spaceships. The ships are preprogrammed for particular destinations, of course unknown to humans. The ships are of a technology beyond humans, and the best they’ve been able to do is ride them to their mysterious destinations for an unknown duration, and, if lucky, to return alive. Many have returned, but just as many have not. Starvation, dropping out of orbit near a star long since gone nova, and unsuccessfully fiddling with the controls and getting lost are just some of the reasons leading to death.
But a few trips have gone to places where the Heechee left behind bits of marvelous and useful advanced technologies. These finds have made their discoverers, as well as the Gateway Corporation, wealthy.
Gateway is both a possibly winning lottery ticket as well as a game of Russian Roulette.
For those of you who have yet to experience this enticing and riveting book, I’ll stop. This is, however, the setting and background against which Robin Broadhead finds love, courage, despair, and profound guilt, as well as the beginnings of a redemption of sorts.
Like many of Pohl’s novels, Gateway is a work that is funny and touching and psychologically acute. Just as the asteroid (appropriated first by aliens and then by humans) is a honey-combed marvel of mystery, darkness and discovery in the midst of the emptiness of outer space, pocked with answerable and unanswered questions, the characters are likewise enigmatic and, to themselves as well as to others, alien, contradictory, and seemingly unknowable and profoundly wondrous.
One thing that I love immensely from the series are the information retrieval computer programs. When Gateway begins, Robinette is in psychological therapy, and his counselor is an artificial intelligence whom we will eventually know as the icon and hologram of Albert Einstein. This program appears and speaks to Robinette like a sentient creature, answering questions, fencing opinions, offering gentle guidance, exhibiting all the traits of being an individual, and eventually becoming a trusted friend. It is accurately said that science fiction is bad at predicting the future. But there are times when SF authors touch upon later technological uses, and this one by Pohl struck me as an early pointing toward the Internet, especially what it can someday become. Google and other search engines are constantly refining their protocols, and it is conceivable that one day instead of calling up Google or Yahoo from a keyboard, we will simply talk to our browsers, the way iPhone users now speak with Siri.
It is sad that when writers die often their catalogue disappears with them. And with the advent of new writers and the Publication on Demand phenomenon, the river of ink — or digital pixels if you’re a Kindle or iPad fan — grows everyday, swelling into something huge and mysterious, like Asimov’s intergalactic Psychohistory encyclopedia. Most of it is unvetted and of questionable quality. However, in every sphere (do-it-yourself or the traditional vector of publishing) quality has a way of rising to the top.
Frederik Pohl, rest in peace.