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I do not usually read science fiction, but like this short novel
on 17 July 2014
I do not usually read science fiction, but I like this short novel.
The author, Frederik Pohl, lived from 1919 to 2013 and published science fiction prolifically on and off over about 70 years, during which he must have seen some of his ideas of the future become reality, others disproved and some surpassed beyond expectation.
Reviews suggest that some of his works are much better than others. I would not want to read them all. However, having initially come across his interesting 1988 short story `Waiting for the Olympians' in an anthology, Amazon reviews guided me to the novels `Gateway' and `Man Plus' as among his best, for which thank you, fellow reviewers.
Few things date more quickly than the future. A novel like this written in the 1970s inevitably gets some things right and others wrong about how technology and human society will develop. Read decades later they usually display what now appear some anachronistically old-fashioned attitudes set in what is meant to be the future. This book, like the author's other great achievement written the year before, Man Plus (S.F. MASTERWORKS) is post-sexual revolution but pre-politically correct feminism. However, it is said to be the first science fiction novel to make use of the then new theory of black holes.
What it has going for it above all is a good story, including danger and mystery, and an effectively imagined society far enough in the future to be different from ours but close enough that much is comprehensible without needing too much explanation.
The story is told by the central character but his narrative it is now and then interspersed with imaginary documents from his time, from classified advertisements to mission reports. These add variety to the reading experience and shed side lights on the society in which the narrator lives, avoiding the need for excessive explanatory digressions.
It is a time when people are just beginning to explore the universe beyond their solar system, aided by partly-understood fragments they discover of an advanced technology left behind long ago by - they don't know who, but the machines seem designed for use by creatures not shaped like humans.
People are learning by trial and error, and errors can be fatal, how to use some of this technology, including spacecraft set to go to destinations in the universe that the original creators must once have had their own reasons for visiting.
Among the interludes are the narrator's sessions with a computer programmed to function as a psychotherapist. At first this seems a single joke about therapy that goes on too long, but does have an important function explaining how the story ends, semi-tragically. The ultimate fate of the narrator's crew members is one I would never have thought up.
By the end of the novel some major things, especially about the alien technology, are still unexplained. Information on the Internet is that the author did eventually explain many of them in his subsequent `Heechee' novels, although I do not know if the explanations were part of his original plan when writing `Gateway' or were later rationalisations. In a way, I would perhaps rather leave them forever mysteries.