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Emergency Protocol

Now the Twitter hoo-hah seems to have died down (at least for now), I thought it would be a good idea to list all the places you can find me online, in case one of them (including this one) unexpectedly disappears.

I post similar content across my various accounts, but please feel free to connect with me on one or all of the platforms below, should you want a fallback option if your favourite gets bought by a billionaire and becomes unusable:

1. Website: http://www.garethlpowell.com

2. Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/garethlpowell

3. Instagram: http://www.instagram.com/garethlpowell

4. Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/garethlpowell1/

5. LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/garethlpowell/ 

The Trouble with LinkedIn

The trouble with LinkedIn is that it’s an echo chamber of bullshit. Someone will come up with a buzzword or phrase, and then everyone will use it, irrespective of its actual meaning. I mean, is anyone actually “passionate about cross-platform synergy in the customer journey”?

The thing is, I quite like LinkedIn, but the manure is waist-deep. So, I wrote a mission statement of my own and posted it on there. Some of you may not like it, but here it is:

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I’m not on LinkedIn to tell you transparently made-up “inspirational” stories about how I tipped a waitress $500 or gave a homeless person their car in order to encourage their development. Neither am I here to post inane “thought leadership” articles or drown you in a tsunami of meaningless buzzwords. I’m not here chasing jobs or trying to impress anyone. Rather, I’m guided by the following quote, which I want to share with you. It’s from Patti Smith, who says William Burroughs told her:

“Build a good name. Keep your name clean. Don’t make compromises, don’t worry about making a bunch of money or being successful — be concerned with doing good work and make the right choices and protect your work. And if you build a good name, eventually, that name will be its own currency.”

I’m here because I’m an author. I’m not making compromises or false claims. I’m not pretending to live up to any weird corporate ideal. With me, what you see is what you will get. I can’t pretend to be anyone else. But I hope I can share some encouragement and useful writing tips with you all, and be of help somehow. And maybe – just maybe – convince you to hire me for an interesting project some time, or at least pick up one of my books now and then. 


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WORKING OUT THE RULES OF INTERSTELLAR TRAVEL

Photo by Andy Holmes on Unsplash

Space travel is one of the staples of science fiction. Characters move from one planet to another. They set out into the starry unknown in search of adventure, glory, or vengeance—but as a writer, knowing how their starships work has a profound effect on the type of story we’re trying to write.

For instance, our first decision—whether our spaceships can fly faster-than-light or not—dictates the timescale of our story. If we decide to stick with the currently accepted laws of physics, it’s likely our heroes will have to enter some form of cryogenic sleep in order to prevent them dying of old age before they reach their destination. And if their journey takes more than a couple of decades, the world they left will be profoundly changed by the time they return, and some of their friends will have died in the interim.

Good examples of this temporal displacement can be found in Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds, The Forever War by Joe Haldeman, and A Deepness In The Sky by Vernor Vinge. Peter F. Hamilton and I used it in our novella Light Chaser, in which it became the basis of the story, allowing our “immortal” space trader to re-visit various societies over the course of millennia to see how they had (or had not) changed.

However, if you’d like to move your characters from one place to another on a scale of days or weeks rather than centuries, you’re going to have to invent some sort of faster-than-light drive.

But, just as fantasy writers have to invent rules and limitations for the way magic works in their worlds, so SF authors have to work out a set a guidelines for how their spaceships behave. After all, if a ship can just go anywhere in the galaxy in the blink of an eye, there would be no way to defend planets or bases from attack. Hostile armadas could pop into orbit, unload a thousand warheads, and be a hundred light years away before the first one had exploded. Space battles would be impossible if ships could just leap away at any second. And how would economies function if you could import fresh produce from Betelgeuse as cheaply as buying it from the farm up the road?

Now, before you panic, I’m not asking you to describe exactly how your starship’s jump drives actually work. If you knew that, you wouldn’t have to write a book as NASA would currently be showering you with money and asking you to build one! Instead, I’m suggesting you come up with some limitations. After all, you don’t have to be able to describe the inner workings of an internal combustion engine in order to know that your average car can’t travel at 8,000 mph or operate under water (unless you’re writing about James Bond, of course.)

Classic ways of limiting FTL include putting upper limits on the distance a ship can jump at any one time, and forbidding jump engines from working inside a planet’s gravity well. In Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s classic first contact doorstop, Mote In God’s Eye, resonances between stars mean jump engines only work if activated at a particular point within a system. In Jack Campbell’s Lost Fleet series, in which the remnants of a defeated navy have to travel the long way back through occupied territory, most ships have to use a network of star gates, and only the largest ships have the power to open their own ‘gates’ into hyperspace. In both cases, it becomes possible to blockade a star system by occupying the jump point or star gate—and it can also lead to thrilling chases and battles, as ships try to slog across the system to reach the next gate or jump point.

In my novel, Embers of War, I allow ship to take shortcuts through the ‘higher dimensions’—a place where the usual laws of physics are mutable and the speed of light can be exceeded. I liken the process to a dolphin leaping out of the water into the air. For a moment it finds itself moving through a different medium, where it moves faster because the water no longer drags on it.

However, in order to give my characters time to interact and get to know each other, I’ve had to impose a speed limit on higher dimensional travel. It isn’t instantaneous. In order to make the jump, a ship has to build up speed, kind of like the Delorean in Back To The Future. Then, once it’s in the hypervoid, its engines power it forward at roughly five light years per day. This means journeys can take days or weeks, and regular fuel stops need to be made to keep the engines working.

Whatever you decide, the way your starships move will shape your story, for good or ill. But learning to live with the limitations you impose will help make your story more interesting and authentic, and give your characters more obstacles to overcome.


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My Position on Twitter

You’ve probably seen all the fuss on Twitter over the past two days. People are concerned that Elon Musk is going to wreck the site by reinstating all the banned right-wing accounts in the name of ‘free speech.’ They’re also worried he’s going to make it a pay-to-play experience, and some are understandably nervous about giving him access to all their data.

The result of this has been a lot of people jumping ship for other social media sites. I’ve lost over a hundred followers this morning alone.

But while I share some of the above concerns, I’m going to stick around for now. I’ve made too many good friends and gathered a supportive community of writers and book fans. I can’t just walk away. So, I’m going to carry on doing what I have been doing all along, and continue being positive and supportive, and hope it makes a difference.

If you’re leaving Twitter, you can find links to all my other social media at the bottom of this page.

The Fog of Utility

Photo by Robynne Hu on Unsplash

I’m a big fan of Lego. As a kid in the 1970s, I had a cardboard box filled with bricks of all different shapes and colours. Individually, the pieces of Lego were small and not very useful, but with a little imagination, I could use them to build almost anything.

On 14th March, The Engineer reported that physicists at Bath University, in collaboration with a team from Birmingham University, found that coating soft material in ‘active matter’ allowed them to control its movement and function more effectively. 

Imagine a ball of soft material, such as rubber. Left to its own devices, it will remain in a sphere. But if you coat that sphere in a layer of nano-robots, and programme the robots to work together, you can distort the ball into any pre-determined shape you require. And if you use a lot of these ‘soft robots’ together, then just like with Lego, you can use them to construct larger machines.

Going forward, the researchers will apply this concept to design robots with soft appendages, better able to manipulate delicate materials—which would appear to open up all sort of possibilities in the field of surgery and internal medicine. They also intend to study what happens when several active solids are packed together, with an eye to developing a new generation of machines constructed by individual units cooperating to determine the way the machine operates.

Extrapolating this idea into the future, we can imagine a time where construction crews wouldn’t need a whole fleet of lorries, JCBs, drills, and other tools, each designed to perform a single function. Instead, they would use a ‘utility fog’ of remotely programmed matter to construct the tool or machine they needed for each particular task, in exactly the way I used to build diggers and cranes out of Lego. And when we’ve finished with them, they would dissolve back into their default state again, ready to be programmed into the next required shape.

Or perhaps, in a time of natural disaster, we could use this kind of directable matter to create temporary shelters, mobile hospitals, and rubble-clearing machinery. The fact softer materials are at the heart of these programmable balls means they could be used to treat casualties without the need for risky field surgery, forming casts for broken limbs, and maybe even installing stents in heart patients without the need to crack their chests.

The Bath University researchers also plan to consider applying this technology to create self-swimming materials. Such a construction, able to propel itself through water and capable of using delicate appendages to manipulate materials, might well resemble an amorphous octopus. Schools of them could be sent out to tend fish stocks, farm seaweed, and maintain underwater cables. Planes could carry reserves of soft robots that could form self-propelled lifejackets or rafts in the case of a water landing.  

Taking this all a step further, we can speculate about the possibility of filling the atmosphere with programmable nano-robots. Wherever you are on Earth, you can summon a device from apparently thin air. Need a hammer? Use your phone to programme nearby machines to form one.

A team of scientists at the University of Toronto are developing smart and adaptive materials with self-healing properties. These materials are made up of networks of interconnected, micron-sized particles. When one of the particles is damaged, the surrounding particles send it signals to help it heal. The team has already created a prototype of a self-healing material that can be used to coat objects like car bumpers and door handles, but we can also imagine future generations of this tech being used to create self-repairing car tyres, solar panels, and aircraft hulls.

Today’s potential applications for smart matter include, but are not limited to, communications devices, energy storage and generation systems, biomedical implants, and environmental remediation technologies, but the possibilities for the future are almost limitless.

However it’s used, utility fog is sure to play a big role in the future of science, engineering and technology.


This article was originally published in The Engineer.

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Ten Eighties Movies That Shaped The Way We See The Future

Was the 1980s the greatest decade for SF&F movies? That’s debatable, but it certainly produced a few classics. The following is a list of movies that have shaped the way movies have looked and felt ever since.

Blade Runner

Very loosely based on Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Android’s Dream of Electric Sheep, this movie turned Los Angeles into an overpopulated, rain soaked, future noir ruled by large corporations, where the rich live in luxury and the poor scrabble to survive amidst the neon signs and holographic billboards.

Aliens

What made Aliens different was the way all the clothing and equipment had been recognisably extrapolated from modern day technology. The marines, their weapons and their dropship were quite obviously direct descendants of the soldiers who fought in Vietnam in the 1970s; and this gave the whole thing an air of authenticty which had been lacking from previous sci-fi films. The future depicted in Aliens was dirty and scuzzy and improvised, and everybody worked for “the company”. Nobody was a princess or freewheeling space pirate; there were no Captain Kirks: the characters were all ordinary people trying to hold down jobs; and the film gave us plenty of time to get to know them all before they came face-to-fang with the alien horde.

The Terminator

Along with its 1991 sequel, Terminator 2: Judgement Day, this movie employed effects that were revolutionary for their time, and set a standard for action movies to follow.

Robocop

The privitisation and militarisation of the police reaches its logical conclusion when a megacoporation upgrades a fatally injured Detroit officer into a robotic killing machine. Essentially a satirical metaphor for the role of human compassion in the enforcement of law and order, this movie spawned numerous sequels and a TV series.

Brazil

In Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, the human race stifles beneath a suffocating layer of bureaucracy. Visually similar to Blade Runner in some respects, this movie takes the box-ticking minutiae of every day life and posits a world in which a visit from a rogue air-conditioning repair man can have fatal consequences for the hapless consumer.

The Thing

“Nobody trusts anybody now, and we’re all very tired.”

Akira

Set in the sprawling futuristic metropolis of Neo-Tokyo, Akira set an aesthetic that has shaped subsequent works such as Ghost in the ShellBattle Angel AlitaCowboy Bebop, and The Matrix.

Tron

The film that introduced CGI to a mass audience, Tron inspired creators as diverse as Pixar and Daft Punk.

Outland

In this gritty space western, a marshal on a Jupiter mining colony has to go up against both workers and management when investigating a drug ring on the fringes of human expansion, suggesting that humans will always be slaves to greed, corruption and their baser natures, no matter the setting.

Escape From New York

Manhattan Island has been converted into a kind of open air maximum security prison, which is all fine and dandy until the president’s plane accidentally crashes into it and the inmates hold him to ransom. Cyberpunk godfather William Gibson cites the film as an influence on his 1984 novel Neuromancer, which itself went on to redefine how an entire generation of written science fiction saw itself.

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Your First Book Launch

Elastic Press published my first short story collection, The Last Reef, in August 2008. Since then, I’ve released another fifteen books, and along the way, I’ve learned a thing or two about launching them.

Seeing my first book in print, actually holding it in my hands, was an exhilarating and terrifying experience. On the one hand, it marked the fulfilment of a life-long ambition; but on the other, it meant that the stories in the book were now fixed. I couldn’t fiddle with them anymore. Now they were out of my hands and had to stand or fall on their own merits.

I knew they were strong stories. Most of them had already seen publication in various places, including Interzone, but still I was apprehensive. I had the support of the publisher, Andrew Hook, and the good reputation he’d built for Elastic Press over the years, so I knew people would take the book seriously – but what if no-one liked it?

The book launch took place in August 2008, in the Citte of Yorke, an olde worlde pub in Holborn, a few short steps from the Chancery Lane tube station in London. It was a joint launch, as Chris Beckett was also debuting his collection, The Turing Test, which later went on to win that year’s Edge Hill Prize.

The front bar was almost empty when I arrived, and I immediately started to fret that we wouldn’t pull a crowd. I needn’t have worried. It was a warm but wet Saturday afternoon and soon people were packing the place. Chris and I took turns reading excerpts from our books, and then we held a joint Q&A session. I sold around 20 copies of my book. The crowd were good natured and all-in-all, it was a very pleasant afternoon.

What I Learned Then, And Since:

1. Location, location, location. Most launch events seem to take place in bookstores, which makes sense. But if you can’t find one, many pubs or restaurants have private function rooms that they will often let you use for free during the day, as long as you can guarantee a certain number of visitors.

2. Advertise the event beforehand on social media and your website. Include the time and location. Make it as easy as possible for people to attend. And perhaps consider offering signed book plates for those who can’t attend.

3. Get an MC. If you aren’t comfortable hosting the event all by yourself, ask a friend, your publicist, or a member of bookshop staff to act as MC. They can introduce you and help field questions from the audience.

4. Be nice to the staff. If your launch is in a bookstore, show your appreciation. If it’s after-hours, the booksellers might not be getting paid for keeping the shop open, so be as helpful and professional as possible. Let them know how much you appreciate them hosting you, and make it as easy for them as possible.

5. Be approachable. Don’t hide away at the bar with a clique of followers. Work the room. Shake hands with everyone. Make eye contact and listen to everything people say to you. Don’t force yourself on people, but if they’ve taken the trouble to come out and attend your event, do them the courtesy of showing them that you’re pleased they are there. A plate of baked goods on the signing table also helps.

6. When signing books, ask what they’d like you to write. Some book collectors just want a simple signature; other readers are delighted by a personal or quirky message. To avoid disappointment, ask them up front. And always check the spelling of any names – you’d be astonished how many different ways there are to spell seemingly common names.

7. Dress comfortably. Wear something appropriate. I usually wear a blazer over a t-shirt and a pair of jeans. Once, I made the mistake of wearing a full flight suit, and by the end of the afternoon, I was wishing I’d worn a t-shirt. Find a balance between comfort, confidence and clothes that reflect the image you want to project.

8. Be engaging. When reading excerpts from your book, look at your audience as much as possible. Catch a few eyes. Speak loudly and vary your tone. If you need to, don’t be afraid to stop and take a drink. If you’re relaxed and having fun, chances are the audience will be too.

9. Record the event. The purpose of a book launch isn’t to flatter your ego; it’s to make a splash and sell some books. So don’t be afraid to ask your audience to live-tweet pictures of the event. Display your own pics on Instagram. Post videos of your reading and Q&A session on YouTube or TikTok. A book launch is a huge PR opportunity, and you should exploit it to the fullest.

10. Have fun. This is your chance to hang out with friends and meet readers. If you relax and enjoy yourself, everyone else will too.

Do you have any tips not covered above? Please feel free to share them in the comments.


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Science Fiction’s Secret Weakness Chamber

The other night, I watched Battle: Los Angeles, and while it was okay as a piece of reasonably brainless entertainment, it still suffered from what I call S.W.C.S. – Secret Weakness Chamber Syndrome.

Ever since the exhaust vent on the Death Star in Star Wars, all evil alien technology has come with a secret weakness, which is usually housed in a handy ‘secret weakness chamber’ located at the heart of the alien’s stronghold. This weakness allows our out-gunned and out-numbered heroes to defeat vast armies with a single blow.

In the Avengers and Independence Day, the alien hordes are controlled by a central mothership, the loss of which disables their forces. There’s a similar set-up in Edge of Tomorrow and Starship Troopers, in which the aliens troops are telepathically controlled by a single entity. In Battle Los Angeles, all the aliens’ technology is controlled via centralised command and control nodes, which just happen to make handy targets for the plucky marines. And in Captain America: Winter Soldier, the mechanism for disabling the deadly armoured helicarriers is housed, for some inexplicable reason, in easily accessible glass bubbles on the bottoms of their hulls.

And let’s not forget the Borg from Star Trek.

These weaknesses, or magic off-switches, can probably be traced back to War of The Worlds by H.G.Wells where, as I’m sure you already know, the Martian invaders – having defeated everything humanity can throw at them – are finally destroyed by germs.

These secret weaknesses make for involving plots, where the good guys get to fight back against seemingly overwhelming odds – but reality just isn’t that tidy. There is no simple re-set button to cancel the alien invasion. Instead of wiping them all out in a single explosion, you’re more likely to end up with alien casualties, prisoners-of-war, and guerrilla resistance. This is the lesson the US learned in Iraq and Afghanistan, and that Russia may soon learn in Ukraine: nothing ends cleanly.

That’s why in my novels The Recollection and The Embers of War trilogy, I confronted humanity with seemingly unstoppable foes; and purposely neglected to provide those foes with secret weaknesses. There is no off-switch, no central brain or control system; and so none of the usual space opera narratives work.

Sometimes, you can win a temporary cessation of hostilities. Other times, all you can do is fall back. Fall back, and survive.


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Mirrorshades: Sometimes, Yesterday’s Science Fiction Becomes Today’s Reality

When Mirrorshades first came out, many saw it as a warning shot across the bows of the science fiction genre. Designed as a showcase for the newly-emergent Cyberpunk movement, the anthology featured early stories by writers William Gibson, Greg Bear, Bruce Sterling, Pat Cadigan, Rudy Rucker, Marc Laidlaw, James Patrick Kelly, Lewis Shiner, Paul  Di Filippo, and John Shirley, and it took few prisoners.

The very first story, Gibson’s ‘The Gernsback Continuum’, drew a very deliberate bead on the techno-utopian sci-fi of the pulp era, contrasting its shining cities and thirty-lane highways with the world as it actually was: a world of crumbling gas stations, rented Toyotas, and cinemas showing Nazi Love Motel. The future it implied wasn’t a future constructed by heroic American engineers, but an international, improvised future cobbled together from necessity. The prose is stripped-down and elegant, with hardly a wasted word; the characters just people doing their jobs. Science fiction, Gibson seemed to be saying, could get along fine without being pompous or self-consciously experimental. 

As a statement of intent, ‘The Gernsback Continuum’ illustrated everything that Bruce Sterling claimed in his introduction: especially a fascination with the fabric of daily life, and an acknowledgement of, and desire to build upon, the SF that had gone before.

That point is reinforced by Sterling’s choice to include a story co-written by himself and Gibson. ‘Red Star, Winter Orbit’ tells the tale of a Russian astronaut marooned on an orbital space station as his country collapses beneath him. Space, it says, will not be settled by handsome USAF pilots riding gleaming Von Braun rockets, but by those who pull themselves up there anyway they can, and repurpose and reuse whatever they can find in order to do so. Rather than an expansionist future of stellar empires, the story postulates a gradual dispersal of bohemian settlers in jury-rigged habitats built from the cast-offs of a dying space programme.

“Cyberpunk,” Sterling wrote, “has risen from within the SF genre; it is not an invasion but a modern reform.”

Whether all the stories in Mirrorshades reflect that statement is a question open to interpretation. For me, one of my favourite stories in the book is the least ‘cyberpunky’ of them all. Rudy Rucker’s ‘Tales of Houdini’ is set in the 1940s and features magic and fantasy rather than the usual associated tropes of the sub-genre. On first reading, I found it hard to understand why it had been included. Each of Rucker’s ‘Ware’ trilogy of novels is a classic Cyberpunk text; but this story – highly entertaining though it is – doesn’t seem to fit the purpose of the book.

Of the other stories in the book, John Shirley’s ‘Freezone’ imagines a shantytown floating in the Atlantic, accreted around the remains of abandoned oil platforms, and a rock musician struggling with the encroachment of electronic music.

Pat Cadigan’s ‘Rock On’ and James Patrick Kelly’s ‘Solstice’ also concern themselves with the evolution of drink and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. 

My personal favourite is the last story in the collection. ‘Mozart in Mirrorshades’, co-written by Sterling and Lewis Shiner, is a time travel romp in which corporations have discovered that changing the past has no effect on the present, and are therefore enthusiastically dedicating themselves to plundering history. Intent on turning the eighteenth century into a massive Third World of cheap labour and abundant natural resources, they trample over everything, creating a world where Amadeus Mozart is a hustling street kid who plays electric guitar over synth riffs sampled from K-Tel pop cassettes, Marie Antoinette reads Vogue, and one of Genghis Khan’s generals rides a Harley.

Yes, aspects of the stories have dated – everybody smokes; nobody owns a mobile phone; and some of the ‘futuristic’ technology already looks dangerously obsolete – but science fiction is always about the time in which it was written, and these stories are most definitely about the 1980s. And yet, as we do more and more of our socialising, shopping and banking online, they still seem curiously prescient. And, when you consider that these stories helped shape the minds of the people who built the Internet we see around us today, I guess that’s hardly surprising. 

In the 1980s, Cyberpunk predicted that in the early years of the 21st Century, we’d be living in a post-Cold War dystopia ruled by greedy and all-powerful corporations, in a world where data was the most important commodity and misfits and loners stalked the virtual frontier in search of mischief. Forty years on – as I scan headlines concerning international cyber war, corporate tax avoidance, online fraud, and the latest information war between Russia and the West – that prediction doesn’t sound so far off the mark.


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Gateway by Frederik Pohl

What would you buy if you won the lottery? For Robinette Broadhead, protagonist of Gateway, the answer is adventure and escape, and the chance to make even more money. He wants to get away from a short, dirty life spent mining shale, so he buys a one-way ticket to the eponymous space station, which is an ancient artefact filled with thousands of abandoned spaceships.  

Little is known about the alien builders of Gateway  – a mysterious race dubbed the ‘Heechee’ – but humanity has figured out how to start up their abandoned spaceships; and now a thriving gold rush is afoot as volunteers ride these ships into the unknown, seeking their fortunes. A ride on a Gateway ship is the ultimate gamble. The controls are unfathomable; the ships follow preset courses of unpredictable length; and your chances of returning alive are only one-in-three. Some crews simply vanish, never to be seen again; some come back with their blood smeared all over the cabin walls by unimaginable forces; and others starve because their food and water runs out before the ship returns to base. But of course, there are always a few gamblers who think they can beat  the system, and the potential rewards are huge, as returning pilots are handsomely paid for new discoveries.

At the start of the book, Robinette (or “Bob”) is back on Earth again, years after his time on Gateway, having apparently survived his experiences and made his fortune. His story is presented to us through a series of exchanges with his robot psychiatrist, Sigfrid. Chapters alternate between their discussions on Earth and Robinette’s first-person account of his life on Gateway, through which we – like Sigfrid – begin slowly to piece together the truth of what happened on his fateful final flight. 

The trouble is, Bob isn’t a very reliable narrator, and there are some things he doesn’t want to talk about. Sometimes he’s downright evasive. All we know for sure is that he suffers from a crippling sense of shame.  Bob seems to despise himself, and it’s not just survivor’s guilt. He seems to hate himself for some of the sexual choices he’s made. For him, sex seems bundled up with guilt and self-loathing, and a deep resentment of his feminine-sounding first name. Since making his fortune, he’s been throwing himself into hedonistic romps with bimbos as a way to suppress his misery. But does that misery derive from his suppressed homosexuality, or from something deeper? And what happened to Klara, the woman he ostensibly fell in love with?

As Bob slowly recounts his tale, Pohl brings the echoing corridors of the Gateway station to life, painting a brittle portrait of men and women suffering from the psychological stress of living in a claustrophobic and potentially-lethal alien environment. Memos and personal ads dot the narrative, adding flavour. When not out risking their lives in space, the denizens of Gateway throw themselves into sexual experimentation and gambling. They are obsessed with games of chance: and none more so than Bob. His very presence on the station has come as the result of a lucky lottery win. Life, Pohl seems to be telling us, is all about chance and coincidence. We may have free will, but only to the extent that we get to decide how we’re going to respond to the hand we’ve been dealt. Luck alone decides if we’ll be wealthy or poor, if we’ll live or die.

Gateway deserves its reputation as a classic (the year following its publication, it won the Hugo, the Nebula, and the John W. Campbell awards, and has since been reprinted as part of Gollancz’s SF Masterworks series). The plot zips along at an agreeable rate, but it is the central figure of Bob who keeps us turning the pages. We view the marvels of the universe through the eyes of a flawed everyman, and we root for him to succeed, despite already knowing that (on some levels) he does; and we feel his discomfort as he squirms ever closer to revealing the events of his final trip, and the decision he has been forced to make. We know something terrible happened to him, and Pohl cleverly uses our trepidation to draw us unstoppably onwards. Like watching a car crash in slow motion, we’re wincing in anticipation of what we may discover but, at the same time, we dare not look away. Even though he’s flawed and sometimes makes bad decisions, we’ve come to like Bob, and we’re worried what he might have done.


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