Wealth…or death. Those were the choices Gateway offered. Humans had discovered this artificial spaceport, full of working interstellar ships left behind by the mysterious, vanished Heechee. Their destinations are preprogrammed. They are easy to operate, but impossible to control. Some came back with discoveries which made their intrepid pilots rich; others returned with their remains barely identifiable. It was the ultimate game of Russian roulette, but in this resource-starved future there was no shortage of desperate volunteers.
Some SF writers have astonishingly long productive careers. Frederik Pohl started in 1940 and with Cyril Kornbluth co-wrote such classic 1950s satires as The Space Merchants. He won Hugo and Nebula awards for the 1977 Gateway, a major novel combining classic SF excitement with psychological depth and now reissued in Millennium SF Masterworks. The compelling central idea is Gateway itself, an asteroid base stuffed with abandoned interstellar ships built by the mysterious, elusive alien “Heechee”. These tiny vessels can travel on autopilot to countless unknown destinations. Some human passengers return with fabulous technologies and scientific insights, others empty-handed. Many more die from incomprehensible hazards at journey’s end, or from lack of food or air in overlong round-trips. So the atmosphere of the human community at Gateway is uniquely edgy, halfway between a gold-rush town and Death Row. Pohl’s unheroic hero Broadhead has both good and bad luck in Heechee craft, emerging with riches and terrible loss. We learn the shattering story of what happened in successive flashbacks, while the engaging, scene-stealing AI psychology software called Sigfrid patiently tries to put Broadhead together again. Gateway is witty and humane, full of clever insights, ingenious asides and claustrophobic drama. Its sequels are less impressive.—David Langford