Most of the time, I hate it when part of a story is told in a later timeframe, especially when that later timeframe makes it clear the main character survived to live a long and full life. It robs any dangers or difficulties of immediacy or tension. It steals most of the drama from the story, making it a mere description of imaginary past events. It makes me wonder why I should care.
Frederik Pohl, however, was good at it.
Conceptually, the story has a pretty neat hook. There’s an asteroid, christened Gateway (hence the title), that serves as giant alien artifact, covered with tiny alien space ships. The aliens have been gone for a million years or so, but their stuff still works. However, that stuff is dangerous to figure out. Punch in some coordinates, which aren’t completely understood, and the ship will take you somewhere your own technology would take you thousands or millions of years to get. But it’s dangerous. Casualties are high. A million years is a long time. Things move and things change. More than that will spoil surprises in the book.
Our main character, Robinette Broadhead, which is usually shortened to Rob or Bob, is not entirely stable, grew up poor and with a rather tragic childhood, and is more or less incapable of being in an adult relationship. More on that in a minute.
These are his stories.
Yes, these. Because this is two stories. The first tells of his time on Gateway and as a prospector. The second leads us through his therapy sessions. Intersection between the two is not what you expect, and is a wonderful twist. Strange as it is not wanting to spoil a 40-year-old book for anyone, me putting the revelation here would, I think, ruin the book for anyone who hasn’t read it yet. It’s an idea that’s been used since, but not often.
Broadhead is, however, a whiny, abusive dick.
Certain things can be forgiven in his long list of character flaws, because he did have a tough childhood, between poverty and the loss of everything resembling family when he was fairly young. There are moments in the story when he tries to redeem himself, when he does the right thing, and even when he tries to sacrifice himself to save nine other people.
But he’s still a whiny, abusive dick.
He almost never shuts up about what a coward he thinks he is, how tough he’s had it, and how much other people piss him off.
And, undealt with stresses far too high, when his girlfriend smacks him for being an asshole, he cracks and beats the crap out of her. She comes back, by the way, and even talks about resuming the relationship because when it’s good, it’s really good for her. And that annoys the hell out of me. Not because it’s not realistic (happens all the time in the real world), but because it is.
You’re not supposed to like Broadhead, at least the young Broadhead, and I don’t. The slightly older Broadhead carries a lot of guilt into his therapy sessions. He’s earned it and is trying to deal with it. I still don’t like him, but I can see him working toward fixing his broken self.
People do that in the real world, too.
Overall rating: 3 stars. Wonderful at times, dated at others, but not as much of the exploration of alien places and technology as seemed promised. Plus, I have a hard time getting past a main character I don’t like, particularly in first person perspective. Not liking him makes it hard for me to be interested in Rob’s story.
The characters around Broadhead are often, well, mostly written with some depth and humanity. That’s probably the real strength of the book, beyond the original setting. We’re seeing what people might reasonably be like when adapting to the world of Gateway and what it represents.by
Man Plus by Frederik Pohl (1977)
This was a substitution when I finally decided I couldn’t finish Dhalgren. I’ve read other work by Mr. Pohl (notably Gateway and Jem), and enjoyed it, so figured this was probably a safe bet and a good place to move after my other 1970s experience this year. Also, Man Plus was nominated for the Hugo and won the Nebula in 1977. I made this pick before I’d fully decided on the ongoing award-winning novel quest that starts next year. Published in 1977, this likely would have fallen into 2017’s reading journey, close enough to now that I’m not going to read it again.
Early on, Man Plus is more than a little bit info-dumpy. We get brief bits of history on how the human race perceived Mars, a little bit of planetology on what that world is really like (to the state of understanding in the mid-1970s), and even a little bit of orbital mechanics. But at least this all came after the introduction of the main character, the current state of earth, both politically and economically, and the idea that, whatever year this happens to be, crewed solar system exploration has gone far beyond the moon.
International politics, human failures, and human stupidity mark the end of the setup portion of the story, which actually takes just about exactly one quarter of the book. I think a lot of this would be chopped if published today, or heavily rewritten so that there are more actual events and more foreshadowing that doesn’t just involve chapter titles, things that aren’t just information you need to understand the world you’re reading in.
But when the setup is over and our main character is now (spoiler alert) the one going to Mars with his body heavily modified, there’s a whirlwind of scientific and engineering activity, and we don’t get to experience it with him. Rather, we watch it done to him, still with a taste of national and international politics in the background.
Worth noting is that this isn’t a novel about the colonization or even exploration of Mars. This is a novel about what happens when you reengineer a human being on the fly to survive unaided in an environment completely hostile to the one they evolved for, never mind that the world is hostile enough in its own way with the cold war still in heavy swing and tension escalating almost moment to moment. The novel lives and breathes in the reactions of Roger Torraway to what’s being done to him and the reactions of the people around him as it happens. Roger seems odd as an astronaut, almost passive through a lot of the things that happen to him from the outside, but seething about some things on the inside. And this only gets more intense as his mind adapts to the new body he’s wearing.
The bulk of the story is told with Roger as the POV, but we get brief moments with other people as well, plus some odd point of view confusion beginning in Chapter 7. Throughout the narrative after that, sometimes we get a few sentences or paragraphs in the first person plural (“we”) to interrupt the standard third person. I found confusing to begin with and irritating after a while. At the end of the book, the “we” turns out to be “machine intelligence” – the network computers have been guiding things all the way along, having figured out that a human nuclear war will take them out as well. And it’s the computers who have manipulated data and analysis in order to create the Man Plus project to ensure the survival of their own species and, not quite incidentally, the human species as well. Unfortunately, this turns the last few pages of the book into an info dump as the computers explain themselves, always using the collective “we”.
Almost lost in that blunt realization is the one that comes just before, the first real vision of the internet that we might recognize: “All major computers are cross-linked to some extent.” Only for us, it’s closer to all computers. That crosslinking is also what appears to allow them a collective mind and the ability to act together, even if there are strong hints that they have their own evolved intelligence separately.
And the book ends on a question, as if Mr. Pohl may have had a sequel in mind. (He did, but Mars Plus didn’t publish until 1994.)
Overall rating: 3 stars. Conceptually, this is a very interesting book, and I did enjoy it, but overall, it doesn’t quite work for me. Looking back over the story, I think my problem is at a fundamental level, with the very premise that it rests on: in order to even go to Mars and have a look around, we have to rebuild the astronaut from the ground up. Especially considering the rest of the team who goes does the normal space suit thing. There’s just one member, the main character, who has to be built to survive Mars unaided. I don’t quite buy into it, but it’s still a good story.by