Frederick Pohl (1919 – 2013)

2006. I was working as a news director at a radio station, which sounds a lot more important than it actually was. In truth, it was a small network of mostly automated radio stations, and I was the entire news department. I recorded a few 90-second reports every day, working from 6:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., with a two-hour break in the middle. I’ve had a lot of crap jobs in my life, but I consider this to be one of my worst. Not because of anything dealing directly with the job, but because of my attitude. I was 26 years old, lonely and bitter, and unsure if I’d picked the right course in life. I got into a stupid habit of going home for a nap in the middle of the day when I was supposed to be out “gathering” news, and my newscasts ultimately suffered for it. I was a bad employee, and I have no qualms about saying it. I was a crappy employee who shouldn’t have lasted in that job as long as I did. Had I been in charge, I would have fired myself, which is ultimately what happened to me, though I’m not entirely sure the reasons were all my fault, as it happened during a station buyout, and was the result of me making a couple of mistakes when talking to the new corporate overlords, which I suppose you could say was indeed my fault, regardless. At any rate, just know this: I hated the job, and I was fired from it.

During this particularly bad period of life, I discovered Gateway, the first in a series of novels by Frederick Pohl called the Heechee saga. Having grown up reading science-fiction, I was aware of Frederick Pohl, though I had never read anything by him. Before I read Gateway, he was this figure of sci-fi, up in the ranks of Asimov and Clarke. Important to sci-fi, yes, but old and out-of-date. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t dislike these important figures, but they didn’t really register on my radar. They were there, but I didn’t care.

(I realize, at this point, that I’m not painting myself in a very positive light. I was a bad employee at a job, and I willfully ignored the grandfathers of science-fiction. I can only ask you to bear with me. The piece will eventually turn around. I promise.)

I don’t remember why I picked up Gateway from the library. I had fallen away from most sci-fi throughout college, and at the time, I was enjoying more works of classic literature, as well as a bit of modern fiction. Maybe I wanted to get back into sci-fi. Maybe I wanted to escape for a bit. I’m not sure, but I’m thankful it happened.

I loved Gateway. I devoured it in a way that I hadn’t devoured a book in years. Pohl had a frankness in his writing that I hadn’t experienced much in other science-fiction. The characters in Gateway are far from perfect; on the contrary, they’re greedy, selfish, moody, and self-centered. The main character, Rob, suffers from survivor’s guilt and the knowledge that the woman he loves most likely believes he betrayed them all. It was the future, and we were flinging ourselves out into the universe to seek fame and fortune, but all of that mattered for nothing, because human beings were still flawed and imperfect creatures, and we would never escape that.

But, the characters in Gateway try.

I loved Gateway, but not because I was a lost 20-something who was depressed and wanted to read depressing things. I love Gateway, because even in the face of the imperfection of humanity, the characters survive. They have to deal with raw emotions and guilt and their own personal flaws, but they continue to exist. For better or worse, they continue to live.

I think there’s something beautiful in all of that.

Losing my job at the radio station was ultimately the best thing to happen to me. It wasn’t long after that, that I decided to quit being a journalist, which led to a corporate job, which led me back to school, which has turned out to be the best decision I’ve ever made for a ton of different reasons. I don’t want to give the impression that Gateway pushed me in the direction I’ve taken over the past 7 years, because I’m not entirely sure that would be true. I can tell you that Gateway reminds me of a time in my life that felt dark, but was really the start of the rest of my life. If nothing else, thinking about Gateway reminds me that I have it really good right now, and I need to remember that. No matter what else happens, I have it really, really good.

Rest in peace, Frederick Pohl. You deserve a better tribute than this post, and I’m sorry I couldn’t write you one, but I’m afraid I don’t have much more to say. Thank you for giving me Gateway. I appreciate it more than I can possibly say and certainly more than I can ever write in a stupid blog post.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *