Could there be a more dangerous test of fate than sleeping in before a morning tutorial? In Frederik Pohl’s 1977 science fiction novel, Gateway, procrastination could mean you and your possessions are immediately launched into the savage void of outer space. To the inhabitants of the titular intergalactic spaceport, the consequence of laziness is death, and the alternative is scarcely any better. Gateway was, funnily enough, my gateway into science fiction, which is now by far my favourite genre. From the expert storytelling of Vonnegut and Matheson, to the poignant worldbuilding of Wolfe and Dick, all have evoked a sense of awe. Yet none have come close to the tension and catharsis of Pohl’s galactic masterpiece.

I bought Gateway as a Christmas present for myself, drawn in by the mystery of its setting. However, I would never have anticipated just how much fear, sadness, and reflection such mystery could evoke. The primary storyline takes place on a hollowed-out asteroid, converted into a spaceport by a long-dead alien race. The spaceships aboard are uncontrollable, have pre-set courses, and their destinations cannot be deciphered until the moment they arrive. Some stop at bountiful planets of alien artefacts, sold for profit back on Gateway. Others do not make it back at all. The product of this deadly game of chance is a deep-dive into the extremes of human emotion, something that has continued to have an impact on me long after shelving the book away.

Though I grew to cherish him and his journey, Bob, the protagonist, is hardly a likeable character. On the surface, he is a serial womaniser, alcoholic, and all-around capricious individual. Bob is fraught with childhood trauma and dangerous coping mechanisms. He also constantly puts others in serious danger to protect himself. Years after the events on Gateway, he visits an android therapist, whom he bullies relentlessly. 

Be that as it may, however, Bob’s attitude to his life can help us reflect meaningfully on our own. At the heart of his behaviour is fear. He is afraid of dying on a mission, so he avoids them. He is scared of losing the one he loves, so he constantly drags her down with him. In the end, he fears his own consciousness the most, so he numbs himself with gambling, booze, and sex. 

This encompassing anxiety is a product of his deadly environment and the circumstances of his youth, both of which are explored by his aptly named robot therapist, ‘Sigfrid von Shrink’. Bob remains steadfastly stubborn, refusing to open up to Sigfrid on almost any topic. Through these therapy sessions, Pohl gives us glimpses into Bob’s unfortunate upbringing. His childhood was plagued with loss and neglect. He rarely experienced his mother’s comfort. Thus, afraid of returning to the loneliness of his youth, he becomes reliant on constant human connection. This desperation for a relationship culminates in an extreme attachment to his long-term partner, Klara.

Over the course of the book, we learn that Bob and Klara’s relationship is very toxic. They lack any semblance of personal space and spend so much time together that it reaches the point of complete obsession. The two also experience a number of prolonged journeys in space together. Spending months at a time locked away in a box no bigger than a double bed, Bob inevitably begins to view Klara as an extension of his own body. He becomes unable to conceptualise his life without her. Thus, when he learns of her sleeping with another man, he lashes out in a display of brutal violence. Although his hatred for loneliness drives him into such a relationship, Bob makes the mistake of letting fear control him again, as is so often his downfall. His fear drew him into the all-encompassing arms of an obsessive relationship. When this fear returns, and he is threatened by the glimpse of neglect, he cannot control his anger. 

In his therapy sessions, Bob refuses to expressly acknowledge Klara. We learn later that this stems from the memory of her unfortunate death, which he has suppressed, and for which he blames himself entirely. Bob constantly dodges his therapist’s questions – not just those about Klara – with quippy remarks, and when backed into a corner either becomes hostile or shuts down completely. In a way that we may also unfortunately relate to, he uses humour to deflect others or distract himself from how he truly feels, as he is afraid of what his honesty may reveal. As a result, he comes across as arrogant, cold, and unemotional.

Yet Sigfrid does chip away at his hard outer shell. Bob’s excuse of ‘I really do have to go’ eventually becomes an ‘I don’t think I can’, and eventually an ‘I wish I had a drink.’ By the final session, he enters into a tearful monologue on the events of Klara’s death. It’s only in this last therapy session, bringing the book beautifully to a close, that he comes to terms with the root of his guilt and depression. He does this not by apologising, nor by vowing to change his ways, but by letting go of his apprehension and admitting that he feels. After shedding his tears, he says, ‘I feel… as if I let myself feel guilt at last.’ Though he is interrogated further on the source of his guilt, quickly putting up his defences again, something changes in his posture: his fear of looking inward is gone, if only for a moment.

Interestingly enough, his monologue on the events of Klara’s death is only extracted after Sigfrid gives him THC-infused alcohol. In addition, when Bob realises the time is up, Sigfrid informs him that his later sessions are cancelled and thus Bob can stay for as long as he likes. Perhaps this was manipulation, or maybe just the push that he needed. In any case, what drives the potency most of all in Bob’s catharsis is Sigfrid’s poignant reflection. Bob has lived in fear. He has prolonged this fear with denial. In the end, he has become rich, but at the cost of insurmountable guilt, and an enduring depression. To Sigfrid, he contests, ‘Do you call this living?’ The robot replies, ‘Yes. It is exactly what I call living. And in my best hypothetical sense, I envy it very much’.

Bob never truly experiences a redemption of character. But we do learn through his struggle, and eventually his moment of clarity, what it really means to live. We realise not just the benefits of riches and joy, but the necessity of anxiety, guilt, and shame. Without one, we can never come to appreciate the other. And, by trying to run from these feelings, like Bob, we end up deceiving ourselves and hurting those around us. 

On the shelf, Gateway appears to be just another sci-fi book, a shot at another typical futuristic concept set in space for added awe. But, to me, it has always been a moving lesson about letting go of our fears. Indeed, we all make mistakes. We are all plagued by bad memories and manipulated by our embarrassment or shame. We may hide from ourselves, and refuse to look inward, lest we are confronted by these fears. But we can learn many important lessons from Bob’s acceptance of his own. It is only once he overcomes his fear that he expresses the roots of his guilt and begins the arduous process of forgiving himself for what may otherwise seem unforgivable. In light of this, we must accept our emotions for what they are. We must express and resolve them where needed. And, most important of all, we must never let fear stop us from doing so. For me, this is the moral of Gateway. I implore you to read it for yourself.