Life, Death and Fear in Frederik Pohl’s Heechee Saga

I recently finished reading Gateway by Frederik Pohl, and its sequels. I was immediately swept into the sequels, because Pohl uses a tactic Ben Bova would later articulate in Writing Science Fiction that Sells. Pohl set up a grand question that the story gradually answers. I’m a sucker for this formula. Every Asimov book I’ve read has done it, and Clarke was a master at it.

In Gateway, human explorers had stumbled upon an asteroid filled with abandoned, ancient starships. The long-gone aliens are dubbed Heechee and the asteroid earns the name Gateway. Humans start using the ships to explore the cosmos, but their ignorance about how the ships work make these sojourns deadly just as often as they are profitable.

The grand question was simply this: Why did a hyper-advanced spacefaring civilization totally vanish, leaving behind no artifacts whatsoever except their starships? The journey we take in the course of finding out follows the life of Robinette Broadhead, a prospector who plans to pilot one of these ships in search of riches.

But it wasn’t merely this cosmic, scientific question that drove the story in Gateway. There were other, much more intimate mysteries, which carried through in different forms through the whole series. In Gateway the primary theme was fear, and how the terror of death or failure can prevent you from living.

The story is told in a first-person, extended flashback form, and the scenes occurring in the “present” are in the office of Robinette “Bob” Broadhead’s robotic psychiatrist. Broadhead makes regular visits to this psychiatrist but persistently refuses to tell him anything about his experiences at Gateway. Fortunately, he does tell the story to the reader. At first it is a complete mystery what has put Broadhead into the shrink’s office, and his evasiveness with Sigfrid is obvious. The question here is, “What’s eating Bob?” The answer to that question in Gateway provides a moment of pathos at the climax of the book, and drives the plot of its sequels, Beyond the Blue Event Horizon and Heechee Rendezvous.

The third, and for me the most excruciating, question throughout Gateway had to do with Robin Broadhead’s indecisiveness. Broadhead comes from a very poor background, working in shale mines in North America for subsistence wages. Much of the earth is on the brink of starvation. He wins the lottery and uses his winnings, in an uncharacteristically bold entrepreneurial move, to buy a ticket to Gateway. As a Gateway prospector, he would have at least a remote chance at riches. Of course, life as a prospector could just as easily kill him.

Once he arrives on Gateway, Broadhead spends almost all his time procrastinating. He delays. He languishes. He even lingers indecisively in his romantic relationships. Like anyone afraid of failure, he keeps waiting for a perfect opportunity that never comes. When will he finally commit?!

His ultimate decision and its consequences have a lot to do with why he’s visiting Sigfrid in the first place.

Gateway dealt a great deal with fear, living in spite of your fears and getting on with life in spite of guilt. Sometimes, mistakes cannot be undone, and hopefully we can all learn — as Robin eventually does — to carry on anyway.

 

The Sequels

The sequels to Gateway deal with similar themes, but Broadhead is a very different person after his adventure on Gateway. Robin has to deal with mortality, the question of his own life’s purpose, and of course with the grand question set up in the first installment. Who were the Heechee and where did they go? The books are exploring the Fermi Paradox from an angle you don’t often see. The hard-science pieces of the puzzle rely on some outdated physics (like a contracting universe) but overall the answer to the grand question was worth the journey.

The Martian by Andy Weir

Prose changes over time. Popular fiction has always been influenced by other popular forms. Early novels borrowed structure from the epics and plays that came before, and some of those techniques still persist in the books and movies of today.

For better or worse, as attention spans for the written word have gradually shortened, it only makes sense to see fiction fitting itself into the abbreviated forms we’ve grown accustomed to in the age of the tweet.

The Martian is written mostly in the form of protagonist Mark Watney’s personal log, beginning on the day his team was forced to leave him for dead on Mars due to catastrophically bad luck.

With the main character in such complete isolation, his log entries are centered on himself, his thoughts, and the record of his own activities, written down without knowing whether anyone out there will ever read his words. So in effect you’re reading his blog. Some entries are rich with technical information, others are short, informal observations. Some are jokes that would fit into a tweet. All of it drips with a dark sense of humor that would be completely at home in social media.

If you’re the type who insists on traditional literary forms, where the tale is told in objective third-person and has a definite first, second, and third act, this style might feel un-literary. If you expect an almost allegorical level of metaphor — as we’ve seen in popular young adult fiction lately — the story may feel pointless.

But I assure you on both counts: it isn’t. The story comes at you in small, rapidly-digestible chunks, each one ending at the cusp of yet another one of Mark Watney’s life-and-death conundrums. There are larger conclusions about life and humanity one could draw from the story, but except for a one-paragraph homily toward the end, the author isn’t trying to thrust any of them on you.

You should read this book for the adventure, and for the utterly convincing realism. You will be transported to Mars, under some of the worst conditions, and you’ll love it.

Neuromancer: Digital Poetry

One can’t read Neuromancer today without noticing the strong influence it had on the writer(s) of The Matrix. Not only in terminology, but in the aesthetics of the story’s world. The universe of Neuromancer is not quite dystopian, but it is a world where technology, biological life, and artificial intelligences jumble together in an existence rife with conflict and death. As the novel that practically invented the cyberpunk genre, this should be no surprise.

The obvious piece of terminology borrowed from Neuromancer is the matrix itself. Except in the case of this novel, it is the word used to describe the digital realm, like the Internet, except it is experienced as direct sensory input. The matrix is a glowing three-dimensional world of fantastical colors and movement. Someone adept at navigating it, such as Case, the story’s protagonist, can break into storehouses of data the same way a master burglar might break into a museum. And that is the primary plot of this story: An epic digital heist orchestrated by a shadowy, unknown figure with consequences that are cosmic in scope.

If you want to see an author demonstrate a poetic ability to describe altered-consciousness experiences, you should read this book. For me, the single most striking feature of the book was the author’s treatment of Case’s experiences with mind-altering drugs and the world of the Matrix. It had a visceral clarity I normally associate with excellent poetry. Gibson’s flourishes of sound and timing created the sensation that I was in Case’s head, feeling his euphoria, his disorientation, or even his pain. I can remember setting the book down after one of Case’s harrowing episodes with drugs and saying to myself, “Well, now I know what it’s like to be on LSD.”

Rushing through the Matrix to steal an AI program or suffering the comedown from an acid trip were some of the book’s more exciting parts, but there was a more abstract reason I feel this book is best described with the phrase “digital poetry.” This digital world was a living universe of extremes, of danger and adventure. Most people picture the world of technology as stark, lifeless and harsh: like HAL9000, the merciless creature of logic in 2001: A Space Odyssey. For William Gibson the future technological world will cross-pollinate with our organic lives so completely it will be hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. He sees a future where artificial intelligences not only exist, but are in a sense more alive than we are. Over a century and a half before, Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, wherein technology produces something monstrous and irreconcilable. Neuromancer is far more optimistic: Technology produces a world that is more real (for some people at least) than reality, and produces creatures that are bigger, more intelligent, and possibly more alive, than human beings. In the world of Neuromancer, technology augments human bodies, extends the reach of their senses, and amplifies their minds.

The concept of a superior artificial being is used in many science fiction stories, so often in fact that it seems as though we assume one day our creations will surpass us, and almost certainly kill us. In most cases the artifice turns on us, as in 2001The Matrix, and a thousand other dystopian futures where the robots take over. For Gibson, most of those expectations of mankind’s digital progeny are there, including their high intelligence, incredible speed, and mastery even of manipulating human minds. But absent is much of the menace, malice or vengeance. Indeed, the characters fear and distrust the AI even while it employs them, but one of the great surprises of the novel is what it does with its power.

I take this to mean the author sees technology not as a Pandora’s Box, but as a beautiful and inevitable part of mankind’s future.