GATEWAY, by Frederik Pohl
Millennium SF Masterworks, 1999, 313pp, 6.99
ISBN 1-85798-818-3

I'm of the opinion that Pohl's 1952 classic The Space Merchants, written with C. M. Kornbluth, was almost pure cyberpunk, sans computers. Gateway, published 25 years afterwards, is in a very similar vein, but shows Pohl had learnt some colourful tricks from the New Wave.

The plot centres around the eponymously named asteroid, built by a long, vanished alien race, the Heechee, which contains hundreds of incomprehensible starships pre-programmed for unknown destinations. Brave, or simply desperate, adventurers sign up to pilot these lotteries, hoping to discover scraps of alien technologies at the other end to make them rich. Usually, though, they just die or disappear, hence the huge rewards for success.

Interspersed throughout with wry snippets of ephemera, e.g. the "Classifieds" from the Gateway Daily, orientation lectures for would-be pilots, or "Commonly Asked Questions About the Heechee" (to which every answer is "We don't know.") the insignificant, volatile human nature of the individuals involved contrasts well with the ancient implacable mystery of the Heechee that surrounds them.

The narrative is solidly backed by nuggets of background information about a future where the dehumanising effects of the struggle to support a huge population has reduced the lot of all but the richest to a nightmare grind of undernourished, industrial labour. You get a frightening sense of the desperation gripping the characters, and, more broadly, humanity as a whole, struggling for a quick (alien) technological fix against total collapse.

The story is something of a tour-de-force. We know from the beginning that the narrator, Robinette Broadhead (who, despite the name, is a man) strikes it rich. Of the two alternating narrative strands, one follows his path to riches, and the other, chronologically later one, his efforts to exorcise personal demons in psychotherapy. The former strand is the more engaging because the psychotherapy sessions seem a little too obviously of their time. The scenes on Gateway and beyond are marvellous; full of rich, often blackly comic, detail about the squalor and indignities of spaceflight. Pohl's near-genius lies in the intricacy of the human detail he weaves around an alien environment, the little problems, fears and victories. It's funny, tragic, scary and eminently readable.