A space station created by an ancient race, Gateway is the launching pad for dangerous missions in small Heechee space ships. Humans have an extremely limited knowledge of Heechee technology, so each mission is a trial and error process of discovering the control settings and pre-programmed destinations. Most missions never return, let alone with the human passengers alive, but a few prospectors find useful Heechee artifacts or habitable planets, becoming fabulously wealthy from the Gateway corporation. When lowly food shale miner Robinette Broadhead wins the lottery, he buys a one-way ticket to Gateway.
The frame story takes place three missions later when, famous and rich and back on earth, Rob receives therapy from an AI Freudian therapist, and Robin (Rob, Robbie, or Bob, depending on circumstances and his state of mind) must face all that has happened and what he has done to lead such a luxurious lifestyle.
The relic Heechee and their deserted ships are a unique approach to built-in mystery and tension in a space opera setting, and I am immediately grabbed by the concept. There are a lot of interest-piquing details within Pohl’s world (including life on a space station and the widespread hunger on Earth and Venus colonies), and you might hypothesize the plot would involve the return of the enigmatic alien race, but you would be wrong. Instead, Bob emotionally descends into his psyche by recounting his story. Compared to the epic adventure space sagas of the 1970s, this character drama stands out, which is probably why it has received so many awards.
For me, the reason this novel works so well is that it’s a drama of the human psyche with a protagonist who is ultimately not likable. Initially, the excitement of the space adventure with a brash hero propels the reader, then Bob reveals his underlying fear of going on a mission by hanging around the space station, and the frame story lets the reader know he’s successful eventually and yearn for his character turning point. Instead, Bob’s true nature continues to unfold layers that are uncomfortable and even repulsive, until the reader is forced to question him as a hero.
But it’s also of its own time as well, most notably with swinging sexuality and women who fall into bed with Bob a little to readily, and with outdated psychological techniques.
Recommended as an award-winning genre classic, especially for fans of character-driven plots!
“They were two lovely choices. One of them meant giving up every chance of a decent life forever… and the other one scared me out of my mind.”