An iconic character in the earliest pulp novels and the latest multiplex blockbusters: the heroic space explorer, striding manfully forward, saving the natives, grabbing the treasure and the babes, and so on. What’s going on inside his head?
Who knows? Not me – I’ve never trod the black void of space with only my space gun to protect me from insidious space creatures (I’m no Tek Jansen in other words!). A possibly more accurate way to put it: sometimes it’s easier to tell a story of simple-minded heroics if we don’t know what’s in the mind of our intergalactic heroes.
Gateway by Frederik Pohl has a classic setup for this kind of tale: humans discover technology leftover by the departure of the aliens, the Heechee as they come to be called. Gateway itself is an asteroid floating in space, a hub for hundreds of ships. Unfortunately, they are all on preprogrammed (and unchangeable) courses, and the destinations are mostly barren or bizarrely dangerous. The payoff in massively advanced detritus is worth the lives of a few hardy pilots, or at least that’s the riff. Which one of you space heroes will step up and face the multifarious dangers of the galaxy?
Well, mostly the desperate and the mentally messed up. At one point, Pohl comes out and states the theme of the book (through the ruminations of the main character, Robinette Broadhead): “Sick societies squeeze adventurers out like grape pips. The grape pips don’t have much to say about it.” Broadhead is well and fully terrified by this idea: not only death, but the loss of personal volition. Or rather, a ratcheting up of the horrific fates in his life, since he’s had a rough life all the way along.
Pohl commits fully to his idea of exploring the psyche of someone in this situation. Sure, we get a pretty nice dose of science fictional speculation (and the sequels extend this – I’m happy to say that Pohl sets up the revelations to come rather masterfully here). That said, the structure of this book points in the direction of what is most important, at least this time around: Broadhead’s mysterious mind.
Gateway starts with Broadhead as a wealthy inhabitant of Earth, but attending regular appointments with a robot shrink because of crippling mental difficulties. He survived 3 trips through Gateway, struck in fabulously rich, but the process marked him, seemingly, for psychological destruction. So we get some present day material, which is mixed with flashbacks to his time on Gateway, building towards the climax where the secret will be revealed. It’s not a secret that wrecks the earlier material – I quite enjoyed this book when I re-read it this time around. All the same, I’ll leave it for Pohl to tell if you’re interested in reading it yourself.
So how does Broadhead measure up in the history of larger-than-life space explorers? Let’s say we had a cage match, KIRK VS BROADHEAD!! One night only! Who would win? As far as I can tell, in Gateway Broadhead is on a completely different playing field. The toys and ideas and the book cover all indicate space adventures, and the sequels go much further in that direction, but Pohl rather definitively takes this book into Broadhead’s psyche. As Jo Walton points out, there aren’t many SF books like this one.
Pohl is an interesting figure in the history of science fiction. He was around for many of the pivotal events in the field, and he’s still busy writing books. Not only that, within the last few years he started a really fascinating blog called The Way the Future Blogs. The title of the blog is a spin on the title of his autobiography, The Way the Future Was, written way back in 1978, and the blog essentially functions as the continuation of his memoirs. Lots of fascinating material – I would point to the series of posts about L. Ron Hubbard or Isaac Asimov, but really it’s all insightful. I’m not sure I would remember as much as he does about events decades in the past! But I guess that’s the thing about the life of a writer like Pohl – there must be lots of documentation and correspondence lying around to back up the brain’s recall of long-ago events.
This look at Pohl is another entry in my sporadic series on blogging authors with nifty blogs. So far I’ve looked at James Gurney’s Gurney Journey (referenced in A Decade Later). I’m going to take a look at Rudy Rucker next. I last wrote about Rucker seven years ago (!) here on the Gutter in Greed and the Fourth Dimension, and Rucker started his blog later that year – it has since developed into one of the more interesting (and weird) places on the internet.