Gateway by Frederik Pohl: The most dreadful of Hugo winners

Long before he was named Best Fan Writer — way back in 1978, in fact — Frederik Pohl won another Hugo (and a Nebula too), for his novel Gateway. And yikes, what a book.

Gateway is one of the Hugo winners I'd read before starting this project, and when I think about it, it's lingered with me more than any other — except maybe Lord of Light — primarily because the book is so dreadful.

But when I say "dreadful," note, please, that I mean the first definition given in Merriam-Webster, not the second: this book is not extremely bad, not hardly. No, it inspires dread; it causes great and oppressive fear.

At least it does in me. And this is a quality I sometimes actively seek in a story, and don't find nearly often enough. It's not that difficult to gross me out, to horrify me — graphic descriptions of morally questionable medical procedures work pretty well, as does taking your half-chewed gum out of your mouth and sticking it on the edge of your plate while we eat lunch. But dread is a much more subtle thing to achieve.

Lovecraft has never done it for me, and neither did Thomas Ligotti, though I had high hopes he would. Harlan Ellison managed it with "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream," and maybe a few moments in Neil Gaiman's Sandman and Alan Moore's run on Swamp Thing did, too (although From Hell didn't at all, and that was a sore disappointment). A lot of Philip Dick's short stories hover in the right general area. And weirdly, though it's an awful book, one bit of Fritz Leiber's The Wanderer did manage it. (Since you should never read that book, I'll just tell you: It was when a couple of military officers, a man and a woman, find themselves trapped on top of a locker, waiting for either the water in the room they're stuck in to rise and drown them or for their oxygen to run out, and it's clear there's no chance of escape.)

Gateway by Frederik Pohl: The most dreadful of Hugo winners

Gateway, though, just — teems isn't the right word, because when dread starts teeming, it pretty much stops being dread. Better to say the novel is coated in dread: even in the scenes that aren't set on the unsettling alien space station from which it takes its name, you can smell the feeling. And most of those scenes take place years in the story's future, in the safe, comfortable office of a friendly robot psychologist the protagonist is voluntarily seeing.

Said protagonist is Robinette — or Bob — Broadhead, who was born poor on an Earth that's slogging its way toward a whimper, rather than a bang. It's overpopulated, and a big chunk of the world's food comes from slimy bacteria grown on shale mined in less-than-ideal conditions. Jobs are hard to come by, and though medical technology has made some great strides, it's only available to the wealthiest people. Formerly a food miner, Bob is now one of those wealthy people, living in Manhattan (which is a controlled environment sealed under a big bubble).

He got rich by going to Gateway, a space station formerly inhabited by an ancient, mysterious alien race humans have dubbed the Heechee. Here is what we know about the Heechee: almost nothing. We've found a few of their artifacts and deciphered some of their technology, but we're not sure what they look like, what their culture was like, or what happened to them.

Gateway is a rock about ten kilometers wide at its longest point, honeycombed with tunnels and riddled on the outside with bumps and holes. The bumps are the hulls of Heechee ships. The holes are where Heechee ships used to be. Human scientists have figured out how to make the ships run — sort of. Other humans, usually poor ones, spend their life savings to become prospectors, and fly Heechee ships out of Gateway on preset courses to they-know-not-where, hoping to strike it rich finding traces of the alien civilization.

About a third of the ships come back. And the people inside aren't always alive when they do.

Gateway by Frederik Pohl: The most dreadful of Hugo winners

That's as best I can convey what makes Gateway such a dreadful book. Human beings clamber into small spacecraft that passeth understanding — there are parts of the control panel, particularly a golden coil, that bewilder everyone who tries to determine their function — and shoot off into the void at faster-than-light speeds, not knowing what their destination is, how long it'll take to get there, whether their food will last the whole trip, and if they're going to a habitable planet or if they'll end up burning alive inside the corona of a star.

They just know their chances are less than one in three. And they pay big money for the opportunity — Bob wins the lottery on Earth, and spends his winnings to get to Gateway — because things are bad enough back home to make it worth the risk.

The whole premise is so simple, and so believable, and yet I've never read another book quite like Gateway. What Frederik Pohl does that's so smart is underplay the terror. Oh, you learn pretty quickly how ugly the odds are for prospectors, and how grim their fates can be, but Pohl lets it all speak for itself, treating the danger as an unpleasant but unavoidable fact of life for the characters, to the point where it borders on the mundane. And that's what makes it scary: the idea that even a terrible death on an unknown planet is just par for the course.

What's pretty keen is that it works even though you know from the very beginning that Bob makes it out alive. As I said, he's a rich New York playboy with Full Medical benefits who lives off his Gateway-gotten fortune and spends his free time pursuing hobbies like the guitar and sex with cute young women.

Every other chapter describes one of his therapy sessions with an AI he calls Sigfrid von Shrink. Now, Bob is a complicated guy, beyond just being a dude with a girl's name: He's in therapy of his own accord, he attends his sessions reliably, and yet he resents Sigfrid and seems determined to avoid actually digging into the issues that are causing him so much unhappiness.

Gateway is spent alternating between Bob's sessions with Sigfrid and his experiences on Gateway and in space — where, as things progress, it becomes clear that something awful happened that forced him to lock up emotionally. I am sure as hell not going to reveal what that something awful is — an article on Hugo winner Robert J. Sawyer's website spoiled it for me, and I've always wished I'd had the chance to let it hit me in the brain unawares — but I will say it's simple and elegant and totally disturbing, and could only take place in a science-fiction story.

Gateway by Frederik Pohl: The most dreadful of Hugo winners

I said the awful thing forced Bob to lock up emotionally, but that's not exactly right. Throughout the book, he's not exactly a mentally healthy guy. That's one of the things that makes him such a compelling protagonist. But to say he's "flawed" doesn't really provide a sense of his character. No, Bob Broadhead is straight-up screwed up. He doesn't just make mistakes or ethically ambiguous choices — through his first-person narration, one gets the sense pretty quickly that he feels like he is, at the core of his being, a mistake.

It's a very honest and real portrayal of a character, and even if parts of the psychotherapy scenes — Bob's Freudian slip, his willful inability to recognize blatant symbolism in his dreams — feel a little forced, it's forgivable. I heard some SF writers speak a couple weeks ago, and one was talking about how science fiction gets short shrift as "real" literature because mainstream fiction critics look at stories as resting somewhere on a spectrum: focusing either on characterization (which is laudable) or on plot (which is common and simple — and which is what most genre fiction does). He said there was a third coordinate to consider, which was setting, and that that was actually where SF shined.

And to be sure, Gateway's setting is crucial; it's what really provides that sense of dread. But you know, the truth is that all three factors — characterization, plot, and setting — actually intermix in such a way that in a good story it's hard to pinpoint where one leaves off from another. And it's Pohl's rendering of Bob as a character that elevates the book from a neat, freaky idea executed well to a wrenching work, and one you could shove in the face of any snootyface who pooh-poohed sci-fi.

Here's the thing about Gateway: It does not just deal in the scary kind of dread. Whether Fred Pohl intended it or not, it traffics in the deeply philosophical sort that poor sad Søren Kierkegaard was always on about. If I may get really academic and quote the Wikipedia on the dear Dane's definition of the word:

Kierkegaard uses the example of a man standing on the edge of a tall building or cliff. When the man looks over the edge, he experiences a focused fear of falling, but at the same time, the man feels a terrifying impulse to throw himself intentionally off the edge. That experience is anxiety or dread because of our complete freedom to choose to either throw oneself off or to stay put. The mere fact that one has the possibility and freedom to do something, even the most terrifying of possibilities, triggers immense feelings of dread. Kierkegaard called this our "dizziness of freedom."

So Bob, who has dreamed of being a prospector ever since he was a tot and saw Heechee heirlooms at a carnival, wins this lottery and gets to give up his terrible job and go to Gateway. He completes his training there and then...gets a job on-station, rather than risk his life on a trip out. He is joined in this by his eventual girlfriend and co-enabler, Gelle-Klara Moynlin. She's been out a couple of times, but now would rather hang out and gamble in the station casino — just like Bob, later, won't be quite ready to commit to therapy but never misses an appointment with Sigfrid, Klara isn't quite ready to get into a ship but stays on Gateway despite having the cash to leave.

Gateway by Frederik Pohl: The most dreadful of Hugo winners

Gambling, the urge to take chances, recurs as a motif in different forms throughout this novel, and I guess what makes Gateway something like a masterpiece, to my mind, is how organically it all works; I don't feel like Pohl was forcing a point (and based on his very recent recounting of writing the book, it doesn't sound like he was). He doesn't let the "moral" get in the way of the story, and that's hugely important, because the moral is one of those absolutely profound, inarguably valuable lessons that are totally obvious to be anyone with a half a mind:

What Bob and Klara desperately want is to retain control over their lives. And yet the urge to live — to sincerely and truly live — is at odds with that desire, and it keeps on poking through.

Dammit, this is a good book. There's stuff I could say about Bob's sexuality (that part of the book never felt quite necessary to me, but it's part and parcel of his issues with control), and I bet I could get a whole nother essay out of Bob and Klara and the something awful that constitutes the climax of the book, and how we all leave people we love behind, somehow, and they stay locked into our memory, unchanging. I should definitely mention the sidebars that litter the pages, maybe one of the more effective methods of infodump that SF has ever seen (and rereading them, I really wish the ending hadn't been spoiled for me). I should probably mention that this is the first book in a series and that I've never read the rest, but want to more than I want to read the rest of the Dune novels or Ringworld or Rama books. I should mention poor Shikitei Bakin, legless and floating through the low gravity of Gateway on gauzy wings strapped from wrist to waist, and doomed. But really, if you've never read it yourself, you should just go and do that, now.

"Blogging the Hugos" appears every other weekend. In the next installment: Dreamsnake, by Vonda McIntyre, from 1979. Subscribe to the RSS feed and follow @blogginghugos on Twitter for updates.

Josh Wimmer is a freelance writer in Madison, WI. He can usually be found here.