Ossus Library Index
Science Fiction Index


A novel by Frederik Pohl
(1977, Ballantine Books)

The Heechee Saga, book 1

A man moves to an alien complex that offers money to prospectors willing to explore potentially hazardous destinations preprogrammed into the alien ships found there.


+ -- 2nd reading (hardcover)
January 27th to 30th, 2007


Quite entertaining, especially knowing the ending before reading the book.

This book is in the same league as Rendezvous with Rama, in that an alien world is found in our solar system, and although we spend the entire book inside this world, by the end, we still know nothing about it. Of course, in this book, humanity uses the technology, and it doesn't disappear by the end of the story.

The book takes place in two sections, and switches between them every second chapter. The time that Robinette (Bob) Broadhead spends in the mechanical psychologist's office is a waste, until almost the very end of the book. What it really does is set up Bob's mental state, especially since it is done from a first person perspective. We know that he is emotionally in shambles, and we can deduce that this is related to something that happened to him on Gateway station. Some of these chapters do nothing to advance the story at all, just giving us a look at how angry Bob is at the world. Mostly, I think, it is to give us a realistic view of the time spend in a psychologist's office: lots of wasted time to glean a tiny amount of information.

The time spent following Bob around Gateway is much more interesting and rewarding. It follows Bob's life methodically from the time he escapes the food processing plants on Earth, to his time on Gateway, through weeks when he spent delaying his actual missions, and through the three missions he did take.

What the book does best, though, is characterize Bob as a real person. It's obvious that the work he did in the USA was essential to humanity, creating food out of oil, since the world did not have enough food to feed itself. I liked the author's comment that at one time, humanity could only think to burn oil, when it could be so much more useful.

When Bob wins the lottery, he buys a ticket to Gateway, the alien station that orbits out of the plane of the solar system, and has a thousand ships docked in it, waiting to be taken out "prospecting". Adventurous people would take ships fit for one, three or five people out to unknown destinations, where they would try to find some alien artifacts. Most of the time, they came back with nothing, and more than thirty percent of ships never came back. But the ones that did find artifacts were paid well, especially if they could be reproduced or adapted for human use.

On Gateway station, there was very little to do. Aside from administrative staff and their families, people either came to tour the station, or go out prospecting. In between missions, they could teach people how to fly the spacecraft, or do odd jobs, but they were encouraged to go out in the ships. So for somebody who procrastinates, who finds himself too much of a coward to risk the odds and take a mission, there is very little to do. So the people in this book have sex a lot. And I mean a lot. There is no graphic sexual nature to the narrative, but Bob must have sex almost every night. Other than that, we simply get his impressions about the station itself, as he wanders. We get to know some of his neighbors, as well, but other than having sex with the female neighbors and drinking occasionally with the males, they are there to add a little more human substance to the atmosphere.

Things are worse on missions. The first half of the mission, during acceleration, is spent in tight anticipation and stress, as they wonder if their food supply will last. How to deal with the stress? Lots of sex, so they choose their crewmates appropriately, depending on their preferences. After deceleration begins, they know exactly how long the mission will be, so they begin rationing, and celebrating.

On Bob's first mission, they found exactly nothing, so the stress levels were very high even on the return journey. Not a sign of Heechee settlement anywhere. To make things worse, one of the girls who Bob liked when he first arrived, who had invited him to go along, strikes it huge on her very first mission. Bob's second mission was solo, after he was so ashamed at beating his girlfriend and main lover that he took the next ship out. That one was also a bust, as he ended up at Gateway Two, a smaller version that had already been discovered. However, even though he destroyed the ship in anger, he ended up getting royalties because he discovered a shorter path to the second station.

The third mission has a large buildup, as it is something special discovered because of Bob's second trip. They send out two armored "fives", so ten people, all of whom are well known on Gateway, including Bob. This, of course, is the mission that the psychological interview leads up to, because Bob has buried the memories so deep that the guilt only leaks out a little at a time.

Celebrating because they will have plenty of food to spare, and Bob will finally reunite with his girlfriend, who is on the other ship, they are all elated -until they pop back into normal space. Immediately they realize that they have arrived at a black hole. They are quick thinkers, however, so they all transfer to one ship, hoping that the opposite motion of separating the ships would give enough of a boost to get them out of the gravity well. The trick works, except that Bob stays behind on one of the ships -the ship that makes it out. As such, he is the only survivor, and although he returns to Gateway a hero, with huge bonuses that will keep him wealthy for life, he of course feels terrible. But not so terrible that he cannot continue living, even when the rest of the crew, including several people he had loved physically and emotionally, are still experiencing the gravitational forces beyond the black hole's event horizon, because of the time dilation. From our perspective, they are already dead. But time slows close to a black hole, so they will continue to experience the same moment for a long, long time.

Thus when we know how the book ends, some earlier scenes make a lot of sense. I first read this book when I was in high school, and I recalled very little of it, except for the black hole. I don't remember being impressed by the book, but the black hole and the alien station were enough to brig me back to it, twenty years later. Bob recounts a dream where he is on the last car of a train, which is decelerating, stretching behind and leaving others to go on their way, for example, obviously paralleling the actual events.

There are also several full-page interruptions scattered throughout the book. Some contain ads from people living on Gateway. Others contain mission reports, and others are short lectures on astronomy, including one of a black hole, which describes a similar method on how to escape one.

I only wish the end of the book was as fulfilling as it should have been. After recounting the events as they occurred, we only get the aftermath in the psychologist's office. I want to know more about what happened near the black hole. If they were transferring supplies out of the ship they planned to take back home, did they keep enough food for everybody? In that case, how did Bob have enough food to survive the trip back on the other ship, even being only one person? If they were planning to use the other ship to leave, wouldn't it have been oriented out of the black hole? In that case, Bob's ship would have been pointing in, and he would have been sent closer, not on an escape route. So much of the early book is analyzed in this way, but the important ending is not.

Still, if the end is less than fulfilling, it is exciting and interesting. The journey that takes Bob there is also very interesting, and there is a lot of physics and astronomy scattered throughout. Through Bob, we learn a lot about humanity in the future that the author describes. People are living on Venus, in tunnels where they found the first Heechee ship. The power distribution on Earth is such that there are American, Russian, Chinese, Brazilian and Venusian warships surrounding Gateway, a very interesting mix. The world as given seems very real, which is a very important part of making a good book. I don't know if it was intended to be the first book to a trilogy when it was written (as Rendezvous with Rama wasn't), but there are at least two more Heechee books out there somewhere: Beyond the Blue Event Horizon, and Heechee Rendezvous.


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