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I swallowed a pill and recklessly lit a cigarette and concentrated on not throwing up. I don’t know how much it was actually motion sickness. A lot of it was fear. There is something very frightening about knowing that there is nothing between you and instant, ugly death except a thin skin of metal made by some peculiar strangers half a million years ago.

This is funny. I enjoyed reading Joan Didion’s book from yesterday, with its descriptions of immigrants and pioneers crossing the wilds of America and then I pick up this book – which once again describes a host of people setting out for the unknown. Except in this instance, Frederick Pohl is describing people catapulting themselves out into the vastness of space itself.

Robinette Broadhead hates his name. He has tried to go by Bob, or Rob, or Robbie, but none of these attempts at settling himself with a new title work. It’s an essential conflict within himself that he has lived with his entire life, one plagued by indecision and guilt. His mother was a miner and died when he was quite young. He blames himself for this and when he wins a lottery that would ensure he never would have to risk the same fate, he spends his earnings on a ticket to Gateway, a mysterious structure in orbit around Venus.

Gateway was built by an alien race known as the Heechee, long gone already. The humans who first discovered it found a docking bay of sorts, filled with a collection of vessels designed for interstellar flight. Those brave enough to climb into these spaceships and operate the controls were catapulted across the galaxy to strange new stars. Sometimes they would return with more evidence of the Heechee civilization and be rewarded generously by the corporation that controls Gateway. Many never return, or their ships do, with the crew long dead.

In cashing in his chips to avail of this opportunity Robinette has elected to pursue an even more dangerous career than the one that claimed his mother’s life. It did work out for him though. He made a huge score, one that has bankrolled a life of leisure and easy living. So why does he attend therapy sessions with a robot every week? What happened during his last trip out from Gateway that has caused him so much guilt? How could someone as interminably indecisive as him have become a winner?

Pohl alternates between Robinette’s therapy sessions with Sigfrid, who does occasionally utilise a holographic image of Sigmund Freud, and his life between journeys out into space on Gateway. Deeply in denial about what has occurred, this analysand makes life very hard for his robot analyst, cursing and abusing poor Sigfrid despite the fact that no one is forcing him to attend these sessions. No one has even ordered him to strap himself down each time. While Sigfrid finds it difficult to get Robinette to answer a simple question about last night’s dream, the reader is made privy to his experiences in training, his growing love affair with a veteran space traveller and his own sexual ambiguity.

This future society of Pohl’s devising is also very convincingly imagined. For one the human race is struggling due to a serious lack of resources. The discovery of Heechee artefacts was a remarkable stroke of luck. Much of the life of Gateway explorers relies upon luck. They do not understand the Heechee vessels they travel in, or even after almost two decades of exploration know anymore about that alien civilization than they did when they first discovered the station. Dumb luck is a recurring phrase within the book and these space prospectors toss themselves into the void with little hope of returning unharmed by the perilous journey.

The novel’s themes are all beautifully illustrated by Robinette’s profound survivor’s guilt. I also admire how Pohl lets us get to know his protagonist and the people in his life, taking the time to develop their characters. As the book progresses the tension surrounding whatever event caused Robinette to enter therapy despite his boundless success continues to build.

This is masterfully written, character-driven science fiction.

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