Frederik Pohl's most famous Science Fiction creation, the Heechee Saga (beginning with a short story, The Merchants of Venus, though most people know it through the 1976 novel Gateway) details humanity's discovery of the Heechee, a long-vanished race of advanced aliens. More particularly, humanity's discovery of Gateway, a large asteroid base filled with Heechee tunnels and covered in long-abandoned faster-than-light starships.
Gateway, the first novel in the series, is widely recognized as a classic of the genre, and a perfect example of New Wave science fiction besides.
Robinette Broadhead (who is, in spite of his name, male) is very rich, and very troubled. In between his therapy sessions with the robot psychiatrist he's nicknamed Sigfrid Von Shrink, he tells the story of his time on the titular asteroid Gateway, where he eventually made his fortune.
Gateway is largely a Deconstruction of Imported Alien Phlebotinum. Only some of the thousand-odd starships left by the Heechee work, and nobody knows exactly how. Programming in a new destination consists of twiddling twelve wheels until something glows pink, and squeezing the go-teat. The ship will go somewhere, but there's no telling where, or how long it will take, until the ship starts decelerating, meaning you damn well better have enough supplies to last the trip. If you haven't reached the midway point of the outbound voyage by the time a quarter of your food is gone, you draw straws... loser goes into the fridge. Some ships that went out with 5 people got back with one. Whatever happens when somebody tries to change course mid-flight, none of the ships that tried have ever come back. The Mega-Corp in charge of Gateway offers a relatively small bonus for discovering an inhabitable planet, in spite of the fact that Earth is a Crapsack World where people have to mine oil for food, since the biggest starships in Gateway can only carry five people, and somebody has to bring the ship back. Experiments to get ships to carry more people have not ended well.
In the early 1990's, Legend Entertainment published two videogames based on the Heechee saga.
Gateway provides examples of:
- Blank Book: Broadhead recalls seeing them shortly after Gateway was discovered:There used to be a jokey kind of book they sold at the fairs when I was a kid. It was called Everything We Know About the Heechee. It had a hundred and twenty-eight pages, and they were all blank.
- Blind Jump: Always with the Heechee ships unless the coordinates have been previosly explored. Nobody has been able to figure out the navigation system beyond how it lights up for valid destination. Direction, distance, duration of travel (and the last two are not clearly related to each other) are all unknown. Likewise there is no way of telling what will await in your destination. Many coordinates lead to planets, but you might also end up sucked into a black hole or burn up in the corona of a star.
- Bold Explorer: Most of the inhabitants of Gateway Asteroid were this, although some were there out of pure desperation. Still, it takes more than a little chutzpah to climb into an ancient alien craft, set the controls at random, and push go. Especially when you have no idea how long the voyage will take, and thus how much food and water you should bring.
- Cold Equation:
- What the protagonist of Gateway is faced with.
- As mentioned in the main description, this is common with prospectors in general. You don't even know how much of a difference that will make at the time. Maybe the halfway point comes tomorrow and the sacrifice was unnecessary, maybe the trip takes so long even just one person wouldn't make it.
- Cool Ship: totally subverted; the technology inside the Heechee ships, that can cross interstellar distances but confounds human science, is treated as a monumental discovery and highly prized because of its scarcity, but the ships themselves are more like Ford Pintos, but designed by non-humanoid aliens. They are cramped, uncomfortable, dangerous and unpredictable, with strange control systems that humans can barely comprehend or translate.
- Covers Always Lie: The books tend to get pictures of random human-built spaceships plastered on them.
- Death World: most of the planets found by prospectors.
- Freudian Excuse: most of the story
- Future Food Is Artificial: Most foodstuffs are made from algae and bacterial cultures grown on oil.
- Human Resources: Full Medical.
- Imported Alien Phlebotinum: Deconstructed with the starships, though other Heechee artifacts are reverse-engineered successfully.
- Mega-Corp: The Gateway Corporation, which takes 50% of the initial profits from any particular discovery, 90% of the royalties, and 0% of the risks. Try your luck, sucker.
- No Plans, No Prototype, No Backup: Heechee technology, especially in The Gateway.
- Operator Incompatibility: The vessels left behind by the alien Heechee have V-shaped seats which are uncomfortable for human crew.
- Portal Network: Since everybody uses pre-set coordinates in the ships, they function in a relatively similar way.
- Research, Inc.: the Gateway Corporation
- Robot Buddy: Sigfrid Von Shrink, though Robinette doesn't exactly like him.
- Straight Gay: The three other men in Robinette's first mission.
- Technology Marches On: Cassette tapes, everywhere.
- Tomboyish Name: Robinette Broadhead
- Unusual User Interface: Heechee ships' faster-than-light drives are activated by "squeezing the go-teat."