Gateway // Frederik Pohl [thoughts + spoilers]


Book: Gateway

Author: Frederick Pohl

Plot: A guy living next to some mines on a depressing near future Earth wins the lottery and uses his cash to fly up to an ancient alien asteroid space station called Gateway. His choice: to fly one of the thousand or so ships left behind by the long dead aliens to god knows where and potentially make a lot of cash or stay still for a few weeks, drink, fuck, gamble, and then go back to the mines.

Or fly one of the ships into a star going supernova and die like whats-his-face in disney’s the black hole i.e. differently.

Subplot: A robot psychologist tries to get the main character to realise that he’s a bit of a twat.

Subplot 2: A female instructor on Gateway falls in love with the main character because his first name is ‘Main’. She later regrets it when he beats her for no reason, but is forced back into his arms by a mysterious god like entity called ‘Pohl’ who commands her to ‘close the narrative’.

Subplot 3: A Black Hole sucks as hard as it can to pull in that spaceship cos it’s lonely and sad and has been marginalised by the Tories.


I’m torn between writing about Gateway and the Foundation books, but I’m also torn a third way as what I really wanna get back to is Babel-17, mostly because it’s all to do with language and the workings of it and specifically an alien language so weird and unfamiliar that no one can understand it, which is similar to Darmok and the Children of Tama in Star Trek TNG, but Delaney wrote his one first and I’ve read the first 40 or so pages of Babel and it seemed okay, but it didn’t reel me in enough, the writing wasn’t as strong or brilliant as other people said, but then it usually takes me a while to get into a book, the first page is always tedious, too descriptive, bland word choice etc.

Gateway had the same effect, took me two years to get past the first chapter even though it was quite well-written…

I think the main problem was the same problem that most old sci-fi had: the characters were too sharp and too smart.

Goddamn it, Siegfried and other lines like this and

there’s swearing later too, which I didn’t expect from someone like Pohl, but then

what can I expect when I know nothing about him?

I just assume most sci-fi writers back then were middle class and tea drinkers, but now I think about it that’s

just the modern sci fi writers, not the old ones

the old ones actually had real jobs and life experience instead of

fucking around on the internet all day like most of us

Did Pohl have a real job?

Did Le Guin?


Can you imagine how depressing it would be to see Sam Delaney promoting his stuff and putting ‘at the gym’ pics on twitter?

I don’t know

I might just be elevating them beyond the reality of what they were so I’ll go back to the criticism, that their characters were too smart and their writing was too sharp and

despite some great concepts, like

Gateway and Foundation and Babel-17 and Ubik

they tainted it slightly with characters who were too sharp and too smart and

this sharpness kept me at bay and made me think

why don’t I know anyone that sharp

or anyone that smart

though in Gateway there were parts that surprised me, especially:

i] the main guy hits his girlfriend

I forget why he does it, but it reminded me of Bukowski and his bar scene and the way he never apologised for it.

Pohl’s guy isn’t quite as convincing as the violence comes a little out of leftfield, or a field in the jungles of Papua New Guinea if you’re being really harsh, but it takes balls to push your main character in a direction that makes him hateable

Does it come out of leftfield?

I can’t remember why he hits her, maybe it’s because she hit him first…I remember that a kid is in the room, but it’s not their kid…but it’s the first time he’s either been violent or thought in a violent way…

But then this could be the reason why all those robot psychologist scenes are in the book…to ground the main guy’s later violence in his psychology and possibly some childhood trauma…

Actually, now I think about it, he does reference a year or so of his life when he was in a mental institution…

Maybe it’s not leftfield after all…

ii] the main guy and the main woman don’t want to take one of the alien ships, they’re too scared

And this deflates the sense of adventure straight away, and drags you into some kind of realism as Pohl’s talking about a ship that could be taking you to your death and not just any death but a space death and if you can imagine being in space then you’d know it’s cold and dark and lonely and bleak and the idea that these ships are taking you somewhere so far from what you know and potentially into something so far from what you can imagine…it would make me hang around the Gateway bar too, especially when I hear the odds on making it back alive…

Weirdly, another book [or film] that did this kind of tension was the Hunger Games…taking a fantastical situation and ramping up the realism…but I don’t wanna dwell on that one too much as I went to see the last Hunger Games film and it was a cash grab and I’ll never forgive them for that, not that they care…

iii] He’s in the closet!

Yup, the main guy has repressed sexual urges for men, dominant, stoic men from what I remember, but I’m not a hundred percent on that…I think it was related to his mother somehow, about how she put a thermometer up his ass when he was young and that was the only time he ever felt loved so that is the explanation given for why he fucks one of the other guys on his third mission…

I don’t know, I like characters who are complicated and it seems quite 60’s or 70’s that a male character might have a negative, aggressive reaction to having gay urges, but it’s dated a bit now…and I’ve never met any gay guy who was gay simply cos his mother shoved a thermometer up his ass when he was a kid…

Does this kind of psycho-sexual theory really have any basis?

It feels like Pohl threw the ‘repressed gay’ aspect in at the last minute unless it’s built up, in a similar way to the ‘hitting women’ stuff, by all those sessions with the robot psychologist…I’m really not sure…

You could say that books or movies often delineate their characters too clearly just so there are no mistakes or confusion about who that person is and what they represent, but in real life, people have layers and you don’t always find out if, for example, someone is racist until you start talking about Obama or refugees

And if someone’s in the closet then by definition they wouldn’t be exhibiting that side of themselves, so maybe Pohl handled it okay after all…

Just a shame it’s shown as a repressed emotion, something to be hidden and ashamed of and not something that just is, but then if you did that it wouldn’t be the same character and you’d lose a lot of the theme, which I think is risk vs concealment

iv] Great concept, great vision of space

I really like the way that most of the novel takes place on the Gateway station and not on one of the spaceships going into the unknown.

If the main guy had just hopped on the first ship and gone on an adventure, there would’ve been no tension and nothing at stake. Yeah, it’s still dangerous and he might die, but you wouldn’t care either way and you definitely wouldn’t feel it.

The contrast with his lover is good too.

She’s been out a few times and he hasn’t been out once, but they’re both equally scared. Him because it’s his first time, her because she knows how tense and terrifying it can be.

When they finally take a ship out, it’s tense and exciting to see what exactly happens on one of these trips, even though you know at this point that he’ll go out again and nothing will happen to him yet.

I think we know this from the robot sessions…you know that something happened to the female character, yet you also know that he went out three times so you can guess that nothing bad happens the first time otherwise the following two missions would be a let down…

It’s great how cramped the alien ships are and the biggest danger being a lack of supplies and not knowing how long each trip is going to be…

The impression is: humans don’t know what the fuck they’re doing on those ships, but they’re doing it anyway.

What kind of nut gets on a ship without knowing where it’s going and how deadly that place is gonna be when they get there?

iv] He’s in the black hole, not the others

That’s what I think, though I don’t have any evidence for it…what actually happens when you go into a black hole? Would you lose your mind and imagine you made it back home and became rich and had sex with lots of different women?

Logically, his ship should not have pushed the other ship into the black hole, and they don’t explain how his ship escaped and not theirs, so I’m guessing that the guilt he’s feeling is not for leaving her in a black hole but for hitting her previously and then having the chance to reconcile with her.

Basically he feels that he doesn’t deserve it, so while drifting towards the black hole he goes mad and imagines that he killed her and that she can never forgive him or forget about it because she’s still there, experiencing seconds while he experiences weeks…

But then it works okay the other way too.

She’s in the black hole and it’s all his fault.

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