Nov 3, 2016

Selling the Sublime

Jakob Schmidt on Frederik Pohl’s Gateway

Being a bookseller, I tend to forget how wonderful it can be to read a book totally unprepared. By a stroke of luck, this is what happened to me quite recently with Frederik Pohl's Gateway. Knowing very little about this book – only that it was about humanity discovering the translight network of some ancient progenitor species and that Pohl had written collaborations with Frederick Kornbluth and Arthur C. Clarke – I kind of expected something about cosmic mysteries and the next step in human evolution. Something along the line of Clarke's 2001 or Childhood's End; in short, something I didn't feel the need to read because I know such stories pretty well by now.
What changed my mind was, quite by accident, reading the first few sentences and realizing that the book starts with a therapy sessions conducted by an Artificial Intelligence. That was unexpected. So I took Gateway home right in time for my summer holidays.
So what is Gateway about? Yes, there is a translight network by a progenitor species, the mysterious Hechee, who have also left behind countless relics that can be found by following the preset courses of their starships to unknown and often dangerous destinations. However, the focus of the book is neither on brave adventurers expanding the new frontier nor on mind-expanding revelations. It is about how humanity does what it usually does since the advent of capitalism: Turn the whole thing into a business. However, Pohl doesn't get cynical about this – Gateway doesn't wag its finger at humanity for commodifying the relics of the ancients; and it doesn't hype the enterprising spirit of humanity either. The economic exploitation of the hechee relics – and, more importantly, the exploitation of humans to get at the hechee relics – just seems like a pretty natural course of events, partly driven by a food crisis on earth, mostly driven by business interests. There's nothing especially heroic about it, and nothing fundamentally evil. Even though the system that is set up to explore the hechee network is a pretty ghastly, neoliberal mill of self-exploitation that tends to psychologically and physically grind down the people who enter it.
So again, what is Gateway about? It is about down-on-their-luck people who see their one chance for the big money and pounce. It is about them taking all the risks and even paying money for the chance to stay and work at gateway station, for the promise of that one big find that will make them rich and that might never come. It is about people braving the unknown and risking their lives because really, what other options do they have left? And hey, some make a living, and some make it big. The gateway company doesn't cheat anyone out of their fat bonus. It makes the rules, and it sticks to the rules, and the rules are that a lot of the low-life explorers going out there never come back, and those who come back usually end up psychologically and physically crippled.
The protagonist of Gateway, a man called Robinette, lives in fear of going out there in a hechee ship, not knowing how long his journey will be and if he will ever make it back. He keeps finding ways to postpone his first trip. When he finally goes out, the journey proves even more grinding than he feared – here's another thing that Pohl illustrates extremely believable: The psychological toll of a weeks-long journey in a cramped space with a bunch of people that you might not want to know as well as you get to know them. Given that, the structure of the book – alternating chapters that tell the story of Robinette as a poor man on gateway and of his later life as a rich man and psychological wreck in AI therapy – makes a lot of sense.
In all this late-capitalist hopelessness, there are a few shining beacons of social progress – even though some turn out to be not as bright as suspected. For example, on a professional level, the world of Gateway seems remarkable non-sexist – at no point, women’s abilities to do all the same shitty work as men equally competent is put into question, and gateway station seems to be a place of blue-collar egalitarianism. However, this doesn’t extend to personal relationships, where some shocking stuff is happening between men and women and. Among other things, the protagonist severely beating up his girlfriend seems to be depicted as a really bad, but nevertheless inevitable thing that turns out to be not much more than a bump in the road in the end … It is hard to swallow the quite ridiculous justifications that Robinette finds for his abusive behavior, and for a moment, I was quite shocked for thinking that in some way, this was the author of the book speaking to me. But then I remembered that Robinette as a character is all about lying to himself about his own motivations. Nevertheless, it is an unsettling moment in a book that apart from that sticks to much more subtle depictions of violence.
Another element of the book that I feel ambivalent about is its treatment of homosexuality. What is pretty cool that in the future of Gateway, no one seems to care about whether you’re into men or women apart from the personal level. Still, in this future where the normative power of heterosexuality seems to have waned considerably, Robinette is a closeted bisexual who is riddled with guilt and weakness about his homosexual desire. This leads to several moments when Robinette’s bisexuality is depicted in a pathologizing way, and again it’s hard to discern if we are asked to share this judgement or not.
And that’s probably part of the more general brilliance of this book: It sticks to the perspective of its main character, but still manages to show us how he keeps lying to himself and pathologizing himself. So while we are forced to pass judgement on him every turn, we are constantly confronted with his own self-judgements, so that it becomes impossible to differentiate between the two. That makes for a very strange reading experience, highly immersive and distanced at the same time. I haven’t encountered something quite like that before in a book.
All this might sound rather bleak, but Pohl actually manages to end the book on a note that might not be upbeat, but nevertheless sheds a new, strangely serene light on the catastrophical economic and psychologic dynamics that Gateway depicts; a light that brings the book firmly back into the territory of grand sf ideas about the human condition. In the end, I was quite happy to return to one of the pillars of the familiar framework from which I had happily departed together with Pohl when I started to read Gateway.

No comments:

Post a Comment