37. ‘Gateway’ by Frederik Pohl

Gateway drew me in with its solid sci-fi grounding: space exploration, alien technology and characters living on the verge of earth-shattering discoveries. Unfortunately, it was published in 1976, so it really is the epitome of ‘great sci-fi, shame about the gender politics’.

gateway frederik pohl

In the future, scientists have discovered alien (Heechee) technology in the form of an abandoned space port, Gateway, and a fleet of alien spaceships. The ships are pre-programmed to travel to distant parts of the galaxy, but humans have not yet deciphered this programming, so there’s no telling where your ship will take you or what you will find there. Enter a crowd of desperate, fortune-seeking ‘prospectors’, willing to risk their lives to ride the Heechee spaceships. Maybe they will return with wealth and glory; maybe they will return starved, suffocated or splattered across the interior of their ship; maybe they won’t return at all. Robinette Broadhead is one of these prospectors, and when he arrives at Gateway he realises that he might be too afraid to ever go on a mission.

I liked the structure of this book. Pohl punctuates the story with pages of crew manifestos, classified ads, mission reports, etc, which really help to enrich this world and show Gateway as a busy, self-contained ecosystem. It’s a fascinating place, where people live in close proximity to death and violence every day, but the situation back on Earth is, for many, so dire that potentially lethal space prospecting seems like the best option. The story is told in two parts: the chapters alternate between Broadhead’s memories of his time on Gateway, and his present-day therapy sessions with a robot counsellor who is trying to get him to talk about a tragedy that happened on one of his missions – and which the entire book builds up towards.

Obviously the idea of roulette-style alien space travel is brilliant – I just wish there’d been a bit more of it. For most of the book Broadhead is paralysed by fear, so while we see a lot of Gateway, we don’t get many alien planets or distant stars. And that’s fine – it wasn’t what I was expecting, but clearly Pohl’s focus here is more on the psychology of his main character than adventurous jaunts through the galaxy.

My problem with Gateway is this main character. While Robinette Broadhead isn’t your typical old-school sci-fi hero (he has insecurities and he very rarely takes action), he is an asshole. Of course, he has some of the usual traits: women flock to him; he has a pretty regressive attitude towards homosexuals (“they leave me alone and I leave them alone”); and he measures women’s worth in terms of their attractiveness. So far, so typical, but there comes a point when he steps beyond the ‘lovable rogue’ trope into straight-up awful person, and at that point Gateway totally lost me.

[Spoilers ahead!]

Klara is the special woman who finally captures Broadhead’s heart (because every terrible man has a magic woman for whom they will change). However, they have a toxic relationship. It’s toxic on both sides – clearly they’re not meant to be together – but they’re in a strange, intense situation so they find themselves, time after time, being drawn back to each other. Then, one day, in the heat of an argument, Klara hits him, and he responds by almost beating her to death. Here’s how he justifies it in his mind:

It was the wrong signal to give me. The reason wolves don’t kill each other off is that the smaller and weaker wolf always surrenders. It rolls over, bares its throat and puts its paws in the air to signal that it is beaten. When that happens the winner is physically unable to attack anymore. … For the same reason men don’t usually kill women, or not by beating them to death. They can’t. … But if the woman makes the mistake of giving him a different signal by hitting him first…

Holy victim-blaming, Batman! Look, I know I should expect this sort of thing from older sci-fi by now, but it’s impossible not to feel disappointed, again. Obviously this passage is repulsive (and scientifically dubious). Yes, she hits him first, but he punches her repeatedly until she falls to the ground, then when she’s limp and sobbing he picks her up and hits her again. One of her teeth falls out. And then he leaves.

So, at this point I was thinking, ‘Am I still meant to care about this character?’ Because he is the protagonist of this book and, even though the ending does not see Broadhead sailing off happily into the sunset, we are still meant to be empathising with him. But honestly, I’m tired of stories that focus on the abuser and the complex psychology that made him do the things he did. What about the victim? Why is her story not important? What about her complex psychology? What’s more, this grotesquely violent scene is not some grand moment that makes Broadhead change his ways (even though the ‘I had to beat up a woman for my own personal journey’ trope is itself tired and awful). No, he feels sad and guilty, but then they get back together and set off on the mission that will provide the big, final climax of the book – a climax in which… he betrays her again.

I was really on board with this book to begin with, and I loved the science-fiction and the spacefaring and the adventure, and I also liked the exploration of fear and desperation and how people can stagnate when they feel like they don’t have options. But reading the emotional side of old-school sci-fi is often a letdown, and Gateway is by far the worst I have read for that. If you can plug your ears to the misogyny and victim-blaming, then Gateway is a very enjoyable read. But if that sort of thing makes you cringe, be prepared for a tension headache.

“Sick societies squeeze adventurers out like grape pips. The grape pips don’t have much to say about it.”

Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts!

If you want to read it, you can buy Gateway here.

[Disclosure: Above is an affiliate link. If you buy a book through that link, I get a small cut, at no extra cost to you.]

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