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.