If I hadn’t had a headache, I would have been working on Dancing the Maypole not lounging around with my snotty nose pressed into a 1970’s Science Fiction book. But I was ill, so yesterday I ignored my computer and got lost in the future. Gateway by Frederik Pohl is a story told backwards. It starts out with the hero (the term hero is a stretch), Robinette Broadhead, who is having a therapy session with his robotic shrink he calls Sigfried. Robinette, or Bob as he’s usually known, has some deep emotional problems, some of which stem back to his childhood and his non-demonstrative mother. We don’t know what’s happened to bring him to the sofa, but we know he’s super rich. Somehow he’s gone from subsisting as a food miner to being someone who can afford Full Medical (as in he can get any limb or organ (other than his head) replaced with no further cost and unless he dies in an accident he’s guaranteed to live an extra long life). The story jumps back and forth between his therapy sessions and memories of what happened. It’s set in a future where the earth is overpopulated and most people are forced to eat a petroleum (oil) based food or a fungus/yeast grown from it. Only the super rich can afford real food. In this future setting an explorer on Venus found some alien caves (built by a people humans termed the Heechee) containing an abandoned space ship. Turning it on, the preset coordinates took him to Gateway, an asteroid containing nearly a thousand abandoned ships of various sizes with unknown preset coordinates. So like the old Westerns filled with gold seekers, we have Prospectors, risking life and limb to take out a ship (no one’s ever taken) to see if they can find something that will earn them money. Sometimes ships don’t make it back at all. Sometimes the trip ends up lasting longer than the food supply so the crew dies of starvation before the ship can return. We know from the beginning that Rob has been on three of these Kamikaze missions, but not what happened. His life changed when he won a lottery and used the money to buy a one way ticket to Gateway where anyone who survives the trip to the asteroid can, after some brief training, risk their lives taking out a ship. He dreams of being super rich so he can marry, have a couple kids, eat real food and have a decent life. On Gateway he meets and falls in love with Klara, a prospector who’s been out several times (though he does seem rather ready to sleep with almost any woman he fancies – the book published in 1976, has a real 60’s feel along with lots of ‘weed’ and references to sex). Rob’s fears of intimacy, death and failure all collide to shape his life.
Spoiler Alert: If you’re thinking of reading the book, don’t read further as I’ll mention the ending.
As the story progresses you know something happened to Klara and that Rob feels a lot of guilt. I assumed she was dead and that he’d accidentally killed her. All is not what it seems. On his third and last mission he signed up for a special scientific experimental trip to test a theory. The reader knows (based on references to black holes (there’s space ads, letters and records of separate conversations placed throughout the story) that the two ships are going to come out of hyper drive and find themselves hovering over a black hole…and they do. These two ships sent 30 seconds apart to the same destination (the experiment being to see if the Corporation understands better how the coordinates are understood) are each only big enough for a 5 man crew. Knowing they only have minutes to act, they connect the two ships together (bringing everyone on board one ship) they’re going to blast away the other ship and hope the propulsion gets them free, but Bob somehow ends up getting stuck in the ship being abandoned. Knowing there’s no time for him to be rescued (and knowing the woman he loves is in the other ship) he closes the hatch hoping to save her and the ships are blown apart.
Here’s Rob/Bob talking to Sigfried about black holes:
“Well, When I got back to Gateway they’d written the expedition off. We were almost a year overdue. Because we’d been almost inside the event horizon. Do you understand about time dilation? …Oh, never mind,’ I say, before he can answer, ‘that was a rhetorical question. What I mean is, what happened was the phenomenon they call time dilation. You get that close to a singularity and you come up against the twin paradox. What was maybe a quarter of an hour for us was almost a year by clock time – clock time on Gateway, or here, or anywhere else in the non-relativistic universe, I mean. And…’ I take another drink then I go on bravely enough: ‘And if we’d gone any farther down we would have been going slower and slower. Slower, and slower, and slower. A little closer, and that fifteen minutes would have turned out to be a decade. A little closer still. and it would have been a century. It was that close, Sigfried. We were almost trapped, all of us. But I got out.’ …Our ships were caught, well inside the point of no return, and there just ain’t no way home from there. But old Danny A., he was a sharp article. And he knew all about the loopholes in the laws. Considered as a unit, we were stuck. But we weren’t a unit! We were two ships! And if we could somehow transfer acceleration from one part of our system to the other – you know, kick part of us deeper into the well and at the same time kick the other part up and out – then part of the unit could go free!” Long Pause.
“Why don’t you have another drink, Bob?” says Sigfried solicitously. “After you finish crying, I mean.”
So I finished the book and thought, ‘Well that’s sad…he made it home, but the woman he loved ended up stuck in a time warp crammed with nine people on tiny five person ship; that would give anyone depression.’ I closed the book and went to sleep, but when I woke up my aching brain saw the ending in a different light. If you’ve read the book feel free to tell me if this occurred to you before you finished the book, but I don’t think the ending is what it seems at all. I think Bob did get shunted closer to the time warping black hole…I think he’s dreaming or hallucinating that he’s back on earth…that they paid him over 18 million…that he’s had an intestinal replacement (but what if he’s asleep and that’s just the gravitational force making them ache?) and his shrink, the all knowing Sigfried is really just his subconscious…and he’s asleep talking to himself trying to work through his emotional problems as he prepares to die? If Klara survived she probably died of old age before two of Bob’s days had passed because if every fifteen minutes for Bob is about a year…that means 24 hours to Bob would be 96 years on earth….if he survives one whole week that would mean 672 years on earth will have passed…if he survives one month…2688 years… It’s like being Buck Rogers only you never get to wear the skin-tight polyester white jumpsuit. See, there’s always a silver lining…even getting sucked into a black hole!
P.S. I love Buck Rogers. It was the first movie I ever saw in a movie theatre, but I don’t recommend it unless you’re in need of a laugh! It’s one of the great mysteries in my life (which clearly doesn’t have much mystery) Why is it I can remember sitting in the theatre and watching Buck Rogers, but not remember going to see Star Wars which I must have seen because my brother got all sorts of Star Wars toys and I knew who all the characters were…but that memory is lost into the void…why? I find that so strange. Anyway, I shall go away and nurse my headache…and hope I’m not just imagining I’m sitting here at my desk writing a blog…and not being sucked into a black hole…
If there really is a book called Gateway and I really did read it…I give it four stars. The frequent swearing I found irritating, but I suspect weeks from now I’ll still be thinking about how fear can affect our lives in weird ways…being afraid of A makes us do B which leads us to do C which brings us to Z which in England is called Zed and happens to rhyme with dead!