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