Posted by : atcampbell | On : March 17, 2009

Gateway by Frederik Pohl

Nine people attended this meeting at the Milwood Library, including one first-time visitor.  Our topic was Gateway, Frederik Pohl’s classic 70s novel about exploring an ancient alien space artifact. All of us had read Pohl before. We all started and finished Gateway.

We liked the exploration story a great deal.  The mysteries of the artifact were fascinating, and were impressed by the risks the explorers took. The central idea of only one nonhuman intelligent civilization is novel.

Much of the exploration of the main character is presented via psychoanalysis sessions with an AI therapist.  A few people commented that the therapy sessions were innovative when the book was new, but seem dated now. It shows Pohl’s obvious familiarity with Eliza, the classic of early AI research. We generally did not find the main character likeable, and many complained about his whining. A reader called him “one sick puppy” and said “his relationships are like a lot of bad relationships in the 70s.” Another thought the therapy sequences provided an effective revelation of guilt and emotional baggage.

We discussed the economics of the Gateway Corporation, which sponsors the exploration. One person felt the company was strangely altruistic. Another thought it was pure capitalism.

We talked about the book’s writing style. One reader commented that writing first person narrative is difficult, but Pohl did it so effectively here that she was halfway through the book before she noticed it. Another recognized the clear New Wave influence, and appreciated how well Pohl merged New Wave and Golden Age sensibilities.  Many of use loved the many informative sidebars scattered throughout the novel, and were impressed at Pohl’s bravery at actually showing computer code. We found the therapy sessions were an effective framing device, and generally felt the ending paid off emotionally.

Near the end, there was some discussion of how this book fits within the body of Pohl’s work. A few felt that his earlier collaborative novels with C. M. Kornbluth and Jack Williamson were his best work.  Others preferred his solo novels of the 70s, with Gateway and Man Plus being in the top rank. One member commented that Pohl’s autobiography, The Way the Future Was, was published around the same time as Gateway.

Overall we liked Gateway. After the meeting, most of us had a nice dinner at Culver’s.

—A. T. Campbell, III