I remember reading this when I was 15 or so, I did not like it. I have no recollection of why I did not like it. Now it is years later and I am at the age of none of your bidness ;P, having just re-read the book I can tell you why I did not like it then and why I do like it now. Like my 15 year old self I went in expect a Big Dumb Object
fun times, something along the line of Rendezvous With Rama, what I ended up reading turn out to be a fairly slow moving character study within a sci-fi setting.
The story concerns one Robinette Broadhead who went to Gateway, an asteroid where fully functional mysterious alien spaceships with FTL capabilities are found. Each one pre-programmed to an unknown destination, some take the travelers to riches in the form alien technological artifacts, vehicles and devices, some go to unknown destinations never to return, or return with dead crews or even no crew.You would think such a setup would be concerned with the mystery of the aliens gradually unfolding and the aliens eventually showing up to say hello, you would be light-years from the truth.
The story is all
about Robinette Broadhead and his experiences on Gateway and on his missions to the unknown. Whatever happened to him scarred him psychologically and he is a man with issues (or even more issues than before he even went on his first mission). The story is told in flashbacks with a present day frame story narrated in the first person present tense, taking place entirely within an A.I.-psychiatrist's office. Even though the book is character-centric a lot of world building actually goes on in the background. The Earth and its single colony on Venus are in a state of dystopia, food is scarce and population is overflowing. Life on the Gateway asteroid (actually a space station) is described in detail, together with some hard sf style discreet little infodumps. The aliens (Heechees) never show up and the the rate of return of the humans flying off in their ships is much less than 50%. The narration is also aided by little advertisements, letters and other types of notices interspersed through out the book.
Clearly what Pohl had in mind was to explore the psychological consequences of the circumstances surrounding his protagonist, who is not even written as a particularly amiable fellow. The amazing thing is it works very well, while Broadhead is more of an anti-hero by the end of the book I came to understand and sympathize with his issues. What makes the book remarkable is that it is an exploration of the human psyche rather than the sci-fi environment. The book reminds me of Algis Budrys' Rogue Moon, but the relentless psycho analyses that go on in that book make it almost unbearable for me, Gateway
makes the BDO and the alien tech more relevant to the protagonist's personal problems, and is simply better written. Here is a relevant example passage from Gateway:
There are people who never pass a certain point in their emotional development. They cannot live a normal free-and-easy, give-and-take life with a sexual partner for more than a short time. Something inside them will not tolerate happiness. The better it gets, the more they have to destroy it.
I did not expect that from a BDO adventure! This is a book that demands to be read slowly. I really did not like it because at the age of 15 I just wanted the damn Heechee to show up with some cool alien powers, gadgets and weird body parts, they never actually showed up at all (if that is a spoiler I'm sorry, but I consider it fair warning). Even today I found some description of day to day life on Gateway a little slow going.
Gateway deservedly won both the Hugo and Nebula award in 1978 but it really is more of a psychological / emotional novel, this one is not for kids.