Gateway falls into that large category of Sci-Fi literature where the science fiction is interesting but the human drama is severely lacking. This is why I think the Sci-Fi genre, like horror, is especially suited to the novella form: the authors often have interesting technical ideas, or a good imagination, but lack the basic writing sense necessary to sustain full-length novels. Reading Gateway was a similar exercise to reading The Martian, which I reviewed a few months ago.
Written in 1976, Gateway is set in a dystopian future where overpopulation and resource scarcity are the order of the day. A decrepid humanity has managed to populate Venus (by living in tunnels inside the planet), and is searching for resources and livable planets elsewhere in space. Humanity hit the jackpot when it discovered ‘Gateway’, an asteroid engineered by an extinct, technologically advanced race called the Heechee to serve as a hub for FTL exploration of deep space. Nobody knows how it works, but basically Gateway is full of alien space craft that can be set to auto-pilot themselves to semi-random points in space. About one-half to one-third of the ships come back with their crews alive and undamaged, and only a few of those who survive actually find anything useful. But those few can become super-rich, and the desperate conditions endured by most humans means there is no shortage of volunteers.
Gateway’s main problem is its central character, Robinette ‘Bob’ Broadhead. Broadhead starts off as an unlikable protagonist and by the end of the story I foud him completely insufferable. Broadhead’s a boring, selfish, cowardly, aggressive, deceitful, petulant philanderer who initially reminded me of Jimmy from Margaret Attwood’s Year of the Flood series. However by the end of the novel I decided he was much worse than Jimmy. A major part of the novel revolves around Robinette’s psychotherapy sessions as he tries to exorcise the demons incurred during his days in space. He spends these sessions avoiding any meaningful exploration of his issues, and moaning to his therapist about irrelevant subjects in a deeply infantile manner. I don’t see how the author thought these sections, which are literally all about avoiding talking about anything important, would be remotely interesting or enjoyable. The novel also contains one scene of violence against a female character which I found really disturbing, not least because of the consequences (or lack thereof) later in the story. These days, if you wanted to address this theme you would be expected to handle it responsibly, but I suppose in 1976 maybe those expectations weren’t there, in this genre anyway.
The strength of the novel lies in its depiction of mysterious alien technology and in the exploration of space. The Gateway environment and Heechee technology are really fascinating and my impression is they have iconic status in Sci-Fi culture. The novel also has one good storytelling device in that it includes a lot of asides, embedded clips from newspaper
ads or ships’ logs, that provide context and amplify Gateway’s claustrophobic atmosphere. At its best, the novel put me in mind of Mass Effect’s Citadel, and indeed I wonder whether that game’s writers were thinking at all about the Heechee when they conceived of the Protheans. The two races perform very similar narrative functions.
This book is probably important to read for anyone with a serious interest in Sci-Fi literature. For anyone else, there’s no reason to leave the Food Mines and visit Gateway.