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Literature / Heechee Saga

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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.

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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.

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In the early 1990's, Legend Entertainment published two videogames based on the Heechee saga.


Gateway provides examples of:

  • All Psychology Is Freudian: Sigfrid is programmed with several psychological models, but what he seems to do the most (at least to Bob, who may be an Unreliable Narrator somewhat) is analyse Bob's dreams. There is a Freudian Couch in his office. Bob himself tends to steer the conversation towards the topic of his mother, which may or may not be conscious Playing with a Trope.
  • Auto-Doc: Sigfrid Von Shrink is a robo-therapist.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Bob acknowledges that he pressed the button and sent his team, including Klara, Dane and Suzie, into a black hole. Now he can start living with it, instead of pretending it never happened.
  • 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.
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  • 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 wait at 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. Dane Metchnikov thinks he's worked it out, but his theory turns out to be just another false lead.
  • Bold Explorer: Most of the inhabitants of Gateway Asteroid, although some are 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.
  • Cabin Fever: Common. Apparently squeezing three or five people into cramped quarters and sending them into space with a good chance that they'll die there in a variety of ways is not conductive to mental health. Bob comes back from his first trip with a broken nose because a teammate has gone nuts. His one solo trip ends with a mild case of Space Madness.
  • Cold Equation:
    • Bob's final mission ends with a confused example. They realise they're beyond the black hole's point of no return and decide to gain thrust by jettisoning one of the ships (this was a two-ship mission and they docked together). When the entire group but him is in one of the ships, Bob pushes the button from the other, jettisoning them and propelling himself out. He may have been trying to shoot himself into the black hole to save the others, or he might have been trying to save himself. Even he doesn't know.
    • Every mission can run into this issue, and 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.
  • Crapsack World: Earth (and Venus) is overpopulated and polluted. You have to pay a tax for the right to live, most jobs are downright harmful and pay peanuts, and medicine seems to consist mostly of transplantations.
  • Death World: Most of the planets found by prospectors. It's not like they really can colonize anything with ships that carry, at maximum, five people...
  • Do Androids Dream?: Throughout the story Bob tries his best to prove Sigrfid is Just a Machine. In the last lines of the novel, Sigfrid more or less expresses his envy of humans.
  • Exact Words: Sigrfid points out that Bob didn't, technically kill his team - they're still alive in the black hole thanks to the Time Dilation.
  • Fictional Document: The book is interspersed with classifieds, mission log excerpts, a Strongly Worded Letter or two, and other glimpses of the settings.
  • Free-Love Future: Everyone has lots of sex. Often gay. Dane Metchnikov (and, to an extent, Bob himself) is bi. One of the classifeds is by two lesbian prospectors seeking a third for three-person missions.
  • Freudian Slip: Played for Drama. "I was just abusing myself."
  • Future Food Is Artificial: Most foodstuffs are made from algae and bacterial cultures grown on shale oil.
  • Human Resources: Full Medical. Hat Forehand has sold his entire body for spare parts to buy his family passage to Gateway.
  • Imported Alien Phlebotinum: Deconstructed with the starships, though some other Heechee artifacts are reverse-engineered successfully. Most remain a mystery.
  • Improvised Microgravity Maneuvering: The group's plan to escape a black hole. They decide to join their ships and then jettison one to gain thrust.
  • Insane Equals Violent: Bob has his moments, including beating Klara up.
  • It's All My Fault: Bob blames himself for his mother's death. Also for his teammates being stuck in a black hole, which may or may not actually be his fault.
  • The Lost Lenore: For Bob, it's Gelle-Klara Moynlin, his mentor, girlfriend and fellow prospector.
  • The Masochism Tango: Bob and Klara genuinely love each other and genuinely hurt each other, especially after their first trip together.
  • 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.
  • Mental Health Recovery Arc: The Framing Device is Bob Broadhead's therapy sessions. On the course of the novel, we learn why he needs them. And in the end, he reluctantly comes to terms with what he's done.
  • Negative Space Wedgie: Some coordinates take you to these. Bob's last trip ends with a discovery of a proper black hole.
  • No Plans, No Prototype, No Backup: Heechee technology probably had plans, prototypes and backups. Problem is, they left the Solar System a long time ago, humans can't read their instructions (or recognize what is instructions in the first place) and have to resort to trial and error (lots of errors) to use Heechee stuff.
  • Only Electric Sheep Are Cheap: Nothing is really cheap in this setting, but only artificial things are affordable to most.
  • 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.
  • Space Isolation Horror: Every mission.
  • Space Station: The Gateway, in all its stinky glory. Also, Gateway Two, the deep-space Heechee station.
  • Starfish Aliens: Nobody knows what the Heechee looked like. They were probably bipedal omnivores with strange rumps (judging by the seats in their ships) and definitely a Higher-Tech Species, but that's about it. Oh, and they left thousands of years back for mysterious reasons.
  • Straight Gay: The three other men in Robinette's first mission. Gay trios of prospectors seem rather common, possibly because there's very little to do on missions and the ships are very cramped.
  • Survivor Guilt: Gradually we learn that's what Bob is suffering from because he shot his teammates into a black hole. And there's a strong possibility that he was trying for a Heroic Sacrifice, but got the controls mixed up.
  • Technology Marches On: Cassette tapes, everywhere.
  • Therapy Is for the Weak: Bob, at least before his fateful third mission. He's been in therapy before and didn't care for the experience.
  • Thrown Out the Airlock: May happen if you break the rules on Gateway or get behind on your residential tax.
  • Tomboyish Name: Robinette Broadhead.
  • Western Zodiac: Klara is a firm believer, claiming it's totally scientific and annoying Bob.
  • Unluckily Lucky: Bob. He destroys a priceless ship on his solo mission, but discovers a shorter way to Gateway Two, so gets away scot-free and joins a two-ship expedition that ends up inside a black hole. Then he cashes in the rewards for ten people, being the only returning member of the expedition.
  • Unusual User Interface: Heechee ships' faster-than-light drives are activated by "squeezing the go-teat." There are pretty lights, too, but no-one knows what they mean.
  • Year Inside, Hour Outside: Because the minutes Bob needed to escape the black hole stretched into a year, his mission was given up as lost. At least until he came back.

Other stories in the Heechee Saga provide examples of:


Alternative Title(s): Gateway

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