We know something is wrong with Robinette Broadhead because we first meet him tied down with straps in therapy. The pain he is trying to heal originated on Gateway, a space station on an asteroid in the solar system. "Inside were the stars" (23), so the powerful nations of the solar system (US, USSR, an Asian empire, Brazil, Venus) built a space station on it. Found on the asteroid were a network of tunnels and thousands of space ships from an unknown race of aliens, later named the Heechee. There are three sizes of ships, which fit three exact crew sizes: 1, 3, and 5. The fleet is mostly operational and uses an unknown fuel source to travel faster than light, making the aptly named asteroid a portal to the parts unknown. The problem is that while they can be turned on and made to travel, no one has yet figured out how to pilot them. That doesn't stop people from flying them. Each craft has a programmable dashboard, but Gateway corporation scientists and engineers have not been able to discern the pattern behind the levers and lights. Once a destination is found that pattern should be reproducible, but then it is less lucrative. So the only guarantee is that each journey will take its crew...somewhere. The other side of the journey may hold riches, but it also might be the setting for a gruesome death, or a quick death, or starvation...or nothing of interest. The corporation knows just enough to get a lot of people killed. Despite the high attrition rate, people willingly sign up, and they’re not in a hurry to go back. (35)
There's no charge for a return trip to where you came from, by the way. The rockets always come up fuller than they return. They call it wastage.
Down on Earth vast swaths of land are virtual wasteland as humans extract the last bits of oil the planet has to offer.
The return trip is free...but to what?
Apart from the parks, there is only the surface of Wyoming, and as far as you can see it looks like the surface of the Moon. Nothing green anywhere. Nothing alive. No birds, no squirrels, no pets. A few sludgy, squdgy creeks that for some reason are always bright ochre-red under the oil. They tell us that we’re lucky at that, because our part of Wyoming was shaft-mined. In Colorado, where they strip-mined, things were even worse.
Surely it's used for mechanical and electrical energy in some capacity, but what we’re meant to believe is that its most important use is for food. Yeast and bacteria skimmed off the top of shale oil in places like Wyoming, Colorado, and the Appalachians are turned into the protein that feeds the continent.
Pohl creates a rich environment up on Gateway. It's like a combination of a city, a cave, and a dormitory. There are rooms that the Broadheads of the solar system must rent. There’s a food hall, which is maybe the same place that has the bar. Drop shafts take people up levels, tunnels take them along the same level. There are, of course, the launch areas for the ships. Veteran crew members and scientists give educational lectures. A "central park" scrubs the interior of carbon dioxide. All of that seems standard. Maybe even the chapel makes sense given the perilous nature of the exploration. But then there’s a museum of artifacts from the Heechee and from other worlds that have been discovered. Maybe the flight crews would visit, but then we find out that there are tourists on the rock. There’s also a casino for people like Broadhead to waste away in. There are even food carts and a semblance of market economy existing in this little world. Throughout the book, in places somewhat unrelated to the current progression of the plot, Pohl scatters one page notes - classified ads, trip reports, historical descriptions, lecture notes, contracts - to create a more realistic feel for the history of and the current culture on Gateway.
Gateway, as mentioned before, is managed by the Gateway corporation. You would think that a novel which goes to great lengths to show how easily people can be killed traversing the hostile vacuum of space would take the obvious step of making the corporation that sends them out greedy, uncaring, and cruel. This is not what Pohl describes. The corporation gives out money for what is discovered. In fact, discoveries are quite lucrative. If a site is worth going back to the discoverers get royalties on what it made off the site. It is even mentioned that it will try to find ways to compensate crews who hit a worthless discovery. It’s almost as if Pohl is describing a business run by engineers and scientists rather than the captains of industry.
Broadhead won a lottery and bought himself a one-way ticket out of the food mines. He used all he had to get there, and it felt good. (30)
I don’t know if I can make you feel it, how the universe looked to me from Gateway: like being young with Full Medical. Like a menu in the best restaurant in the world, when somebody else is going to pick up the check. Like a girl you've just met who likes you. Like an unopened gift.
There’s something about this quote that I love. It just says it so nicely. Despite this, he’s not eager to make an expedition. During his long uneventful stay he meets and falls in love with Klara, another resident of Gateway who isn't in a hurry to explore. There is an uncomfortable sense of apprehension that pervades their time on Gateway. It actually fills the reader with unease. What is stopping them from making a journey?
About eighty percent of flights from Gateway come up empty. About fifteen percent don’t come back at all. So one person in twenty, on average, comes back from a prospecting trip with something that Gateway - that mankind in general - can make a profit on. Most of even those are lucky if they collect enough to pay their costs for getting her in the first place.
If we break down this paragraph (35) we can start to figure out why. Eighty percent of expeditions come back with nothing, so there’s a big chance a person might just be a failure. There’s a lot of consternation among crew members about what ship to take and who to take it with because, given the fifteen percent who die on expeditions, failure seems like a worthless risk. Death is the most powerful source of fear there is. Maybe there's even a little fear of success, even if it’s only a one in twenty chance. Most people who come to Gateway must have been desperate on Earth. Maybe the idea of wealth and fame scares them. Success or failure, most can't even pay for their journey nor can they afford to stay on Gateway indefinitely. Being sent back to Earth always lingers. (28)
"Not right this minute." I mean what was the advantage? If I hadn't liked what they said, I might have changed my mind, and what other options did I have, really? Being a prospector is pretty scary. I hate the idea of being killed. I hate the idea of dying at all, ever; not being alive anymore, having everything stop, knowing that all those other people would go on living and having sex and joy without me being there to share it. But I didn't hate it as much as I hated the idea of going back to the food mines.
Not knowing what is on the other end of an expedition might be the scariest part of all. Death is one thing, but how is it going to come? It could be quick and painless, or it could be long and painful. Death is not always the worst thing you can imagine either. Some people come back having lost their mind because of the intense experience of the journey. Their body might be physically destroyed because of trauma during the journey or at the destination. They may have seen their friends die horrible deaths while they have been spared. There are literally thousands of scenarios (if not more) that could be imagined on the other end of an expedition.
There's more with Rob and Klara though. They have formed a bond on Gateway where most people have left all their bonds behind on Earth. Deep down I think they know their relationship is a mistake if they want to succeed on Gateway, but they do love each other, and so it keeps them stationary.
The novel jumps between Broadhead's past on Gateway and present sessions with his robot calm and tireless logical therapist, Sigfrid. The sessions seem like a distraction from the amazingness of Gateway. They don't seem to advance the plot either. We know Robin (or Rob or Bob) is struggling with emotional pain, and we think it stems from something that happened on Gateway. While his continuing participation in these sessions indicates he wants to expunge himself of that pain, he acts evasive and combative instead of forthcoming indicating he cannot bear to cure himself. The sessions are brutal, with Broadhead often ending up emotionally drained in tears. (pg 17)
It is very hard, sometimes, to fool him. I get to the end of a session absolutely limp, with the feeling that if I had stayed with him for one more minute I would have found myself falling right down into that pain and it would have destroyed me.
The chapters describing his sessions weren't compelling to me. It is not until the final session that the previous ones are vindicated. In that session is one of the greatest revelations I have ever read in science fiction. I put it on par with what is discovered in Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End. The revelation in Gateway does hard science fiction proud, as it takes a little knowledge of relativity to understand. We find out that Broadhead became rich on just his third trip out, but the rest of the crew of two ships (an experimental trip) was lost when they were pulled into a black hole. Rob's escape doomed the rest of the crew, and Rob can’t tell if he meant to jettison himself or the other nine to safety. Is he a murderer or did he accidentally kill them while trying to be a hero. The story in itself is a pretty good revelation, but that’s not what sets the climax of Gateway apart. See, no matter his intentions, there is no way Bob is a murderer...yet. Because of gravitational time dilation, Klara and the rest of the crew haven't died yet. Years have passed, dozens of sessions have come and gone and the crew is still living in the moments after Bob has left them for dead. (276)
Or cured me. Perhaps they are the same thing.
"Don't you understand, Sigfrid? That’s the point. I not only killed her, I’m still killing her!"
The last session, interspersed with the telling of the climactic scene at the black hole, is intense reading.
Patiently: "Do you think what you just said is true, Bob?"
"She think it is! Now, and forever, as long as I live. It isn't years ago that it happened for her. It's only a few minutes, and it goes on for all of my life. I'm down here, getting older, trying to forget, and there's Klara up there in Sagittarius YY, floating around like a fly in amber!"
I drop to the bare plastic mat, sobbing. [...]
"Let the pain out, Bob," Sigfrid says gently. "Let it all out."
"What do you think I'm doing?" I roll over on the foam mat, staring at the ceiling. "I could get over the pain and the guilt, Sigfrid, if she could. But for her it isn't over. She's out there, stuck in time."
"Go ahead, Bob," he encourages.
"I am going ahead. Every second is still the newest second in her mind - the second when I threw her life away to save my own. I'll live and get old and die before she lives past that second, Sigfrid."
"Keep going, Bob. Say it all."
"She's thinking I betrayed her, and she's thinking it now! I can’t live with that."