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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Discussing Published Hooks & Books » WBR: *GATEWAY* (Pohl, 1977)

   
Author Topic: WBR: *GATEWAY* (Pohl, 1977)
MattLeo
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Writer's Book Report: Gateway, by Frederik Pohl (1977)

Synopsis:

Gateway is an ancient space base built into an asteroid then abandoned a million years ago by an alien race called the Heechee. Anyone who can afford passage there can climb into one of the cramped but still operational interstellar vessel and go prospecting for alien artifacts. The catch is the ships run on autopilot; nobody knows how to run them. That autopilot might fly them into a black hole, or take them on a trip that last months longer than their food supply. Prospecting is a desperate gamble; but most of humanity lives desperate lives, surviving on artificial food synthesized from fossil hydrocarbons. Robinette Broadhead is one of the few to strike it rich on Gateway, but at a cost so terrible that it threatens his sanity.

Discussion:

My plan in the writer's book report series was to do Gordie Dickson's DORSAI! next, but I ran across a copy of Pohl's 1977 Hugo-winning novel GATEWAY. It's not available in ebook, but it was reprinted in paperback in 2004.

GATEWAY is structurally very interesting. In GATEWAY we first meet Rob Broadhead as a rich playboy *after* he's hit his alien jackpot. The story then unfolds in two parallel tracks, switching between Rob's sessions with his robotic psychotherapist and the past events leading up to his final, successful trip. In the "present", Rob lives the life of an idle playboy, traveling the world and having sex with a string of beautiful women. But he doesn't seem to enjoy this life very much. It's all just a distraction from something terrible that happened on his final, "successful" prospecting trip, something he can't even bring himself to remember.

This way of structuring the story is a costly but clever choice by Pohl. He gives up any chance of generating apprehension over Rob's survival and ultimate success in space. In return he focuses our apprehension exclusively on the unknown, terrible thing that will happen "out there".

Dread permeates this novel, not beaten into our head but allowed to seep in through the relentless accumuation of detail. For example, the pilot instructors are "old hands" who've been out a grand total of just two or three times. A few have been out five times, but they are the unlucky ones who suffer the privations of living months alone, or with as many as four other prospectors in a vessel with not much more free space than a large van. As the story progresses there are regular instances of prospecting ships failing to return, returning with crews perished of starvation or critically injured. Openings on missions are posted, and characters try to handicap their survival and reward chances, which are never any good. Rob spends much of the middle part of the novel paralized with indecision over each opportunity. The whole Gateway enterprise is fueled by desperation, but the desperation is handled with a light touch; the characters accept it as a grim but unavoidable fact of life on Gateway.

This middle part is the weak spot of the novel. It performs the necessary function of drawing out the suspense and building the relationship between a protagonist and key character. But at the same time it's perfectly clear that nothing is going to happen immediately.

In a situation like this you need to draw on something other than plot to move the reader forward. Unfortuantely, Rob isn't really that interesting a character; he's got psychological problems, but in my opinion he's not a vivid protagonist, and certainly not a particularly attractive one. In part I think that's because we meet Rob after the fact, when he is superficially successful but spiritually ruined. Pohl also gives Rob some ugly traits and doesn't sugar-coat them. I think we *do* sympathize with Rob, but not because we like him that much, but because he's in a grim, horrible situation.

What does keep us going through this section of the story is that it takes place on Gateway, a cynical masterpiece of world-building. It isn't the alien technology that fascinates; that has largely been stripped by prior salvagers. What draws us into this world is the stunning way in which commonplace human venality has metastized through the once-alien outpost. Gateway, the greatest research project of the human race, boasts a casino. That tells you a lot right there.

There's been a lot written about the supposed domination of sci-fi by left-wing authors. Personally, I see writers across the political spectrum going all the way back to the pulp magazine era, but that said, heavy-handed social criticism was pretty commonplace in sci-fi in the 70s. Any time a science fiction author writes social criticism, the question isn't *whether* he'll put his thumb on the world-building scales, it's how obvious he'll be when he does it. Pohl is quite subtle. He gives us a world that people who disagree with him could construe a different way The prospectors are independent contractors, free to come and go as they please. The risks they take are voluntary, and the rewards potentially enormous, so the system looks fair on the face of it. But the closer you look at the deal, the more rotten it smells.

As contractors, the prospectors on Gateway have to pay a "head tax" which supposedly pays for the cost of their life support. If you don't keep up with your head tax, you aren't allowed to consume resources on Gateway. If there is no ship to put you on, they just toss you out the airlock. This could be defended as tough, but fair, except it should raise an important question: why keep prospectors on Gateway at all? Why not keep them on Earth and move them to Gateway when they've accepted a mission, thus avoiding the need for a head tax altogether?

The reason for shipping prospectors to the Gateway and stranding them there with their money running out is that the system is set up to exploit the poor, to put them in a vulnerable position where they are facing death either way. In fact, when extra cannon fodder is needed for a particularly dangerous mission, the head tax mysteriously goes up. Pohl wisely doesn't draw a chart for readers, but this is smoking-gun proof the system is designed to manipulate desperate prospectors.

And what do successful prospectors do with their winnings? They buy medical care. "Full medical" means a long life of extended youth, thanks to readily available replacement organs. Where do those organs come from? From the people who can't afford medical care at all. If you are critically injured, you might not be able to pay to be cured, but you can sell your organs to buy a loved one a one-way ticket to Gateway...

And what do those prospectors do with that extended life? They amuse themselves, eating real food and having lots of sex. It's a comfortable, hedonistic lifestyle, but ultimately an insignificant one. They don't do anything meaningful. Pohl even implies in several places that there's something just a bit pathetic about those rich old prospectors, dining out the rest of their lives on their one lucky break, but he doesn't come out and say it. More importantly it never occurs to the characters to question how things work. I think that's why I found Rob less vivid than he might have been; he doesn't have much of a life of the mind; he doesn't question much and as a result neither would most readers.

But it's important to note that none of the characters ever questions the exploitative nature of the system. I think that serves two important purposes. First I think it adds to the horror of the situation for the prospectors in the way a scrupulously fair system would not. Second, it makes readers who disagree politically with the author less likely to raise objections.

There are other, less obvious social criticisms in Pohl's world-building. For example, the protagonist starts his life digging shale in the Montana "food mines". GATEWAY was written in the mid 70s, during the energy crisis that followed the '73 OPEC oil embargo. That was when the first attempts at full-scale production of shale oil were made, a process which chewed up whole mountains and spat out vast piles of crushed and blasted rock. That shocked a public that had so recently bought into a conservation mindset fostered by the famous "Crying Indian" ad campaign.

There's an implicit argument being made here about environmental justice. To survive in the short term, the poor are obliged to transform the landscape they live in into an industrial wasteland, while the wealthy live in clean enclaves safely walled off from pollution by great engineering projects.

One last unusual technique Pohl uses in this novel is inserting frequent sidebars full of bits of world-building detail. Sometimes they have the log of Robs robot psychotherapist, other times what appear to be exerpts of Gateway Company brochures, snippets of media interviews, trip reports, and classified advertisements. It doesn't work perfecty consistently, but this technique adds enough dystopic texture to the story that I'd call it successful. It is a way for the author to insert his viewpoint into a story that is told entirely from within the protagonist's viewpoint without editorial comment by the narrator.

Conclusions:

The strongest point in this novel's favor is it's pervasive atmosphere of oppressive fear. It feels almost like a horror novel.

GATEWAY can still be read with pleasure after almost forty years, although it is dated in a few ways. First is the depiction of obsolete forms of psychotherapy. It's a minor point in itself, but I think the psychoanalytic sessions are less interesting to us today. Worse, Rob's analysis sessions make it all too easy for an alert reader to guess the terrible fate that awaits. The emotional theatrics in the sessions undermine the emotional impact of the actual event. The reliance on psyhodynamic therapy as a structuring device explains why this novel feels ever-so-slightly unfinished to me. In the 1970s readers would be more inclined than they are today to assume that recoverying a suppressed memory would resolve the protagonist's problems.

The second dated feature is the level of intense social criticism in the story. Pohl cleverly avoids ever drawing the reader's attention to what he's up to so that the novel doesn't feel pedantic. If you're looking for moral implications they're unmistakable, but you're free to ignore this dimension of the novel.

Take-away lessons from this book:

(1) Stories don't have to be told in strictly chronological order to work as entertainment.

(2) Opening with the protagonist AFTER the main events of the story de-emphasizes the usual and obvious sources of suspense and focuses reader anxiety on unkown details.

(3) Underplaying the terror can be more terrifying than overplaying it.

(4) Points that emerge from an author's political world view don't have to be handled like reader indoctrination (e.g. Starship Troopers). If those points are taken for granted by the characters they might serve the story more readily.

(5) Using devices (like sidebars) to introduce extraneous information sounds inadvisable, but that provides a way of introducing alternative viewpoints and it works pretty well here.

(6) Reliance on social scientific theories can date a book more rapidly than reliance on hard science.

Bibliographic Data

Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication Date: 1977
Original Edition: ISBN 0-312-31780-8 , 313pp (hardcover)
Edition Reviewed: ISBN 0-345-47583-6 , 278 pp (softcover)

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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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Thank you, MattLeo.

It might be interesting to hear what you have to say on the subsequent books in the "Heechee Saga," BEYOND THE BLUE EVENT HORIZON and HEECHEE RONDEZVOUS, but those books might be even more challenging to locate.

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MattLeo
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You're welcome, Kathleen. I probably should take up the study of some novel series at some point, because the impulse to create a novel series is something I confess I don't fully understand.

I'm not even a big fan of *reading* series. For me the plot plays itself out within the covers of a book, the characters complete their arc and the story is done. This'll probably get me drummed out of the corps here, but I've never read any of the Ender novels that follow ENDER'S GAME. I thought ENDER'S GAME was a brilliant exploration of moral responsibility, richly deserving of its landmark status in the field of science fiction, but after I put it down it never occurred to me to wonder "what does Ender do next?"

It's not that I've never read series; I do faithfully consume series where there's clearly an overarching story, as in Asimov's FOUNDATION series and of course Harry Potter.

I can see a point to continuing the Heechee stories, because GATEWAY is so driven by unanswered questions, some of which remain unanswered in the end. As I said, this novel has a slightly unfinished feel to it.

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History
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Another excellent book report/critique, Matt.

The Heechee are first mentioned in the novella "The Merchants of Venus"(1974 , a satire of free-market capitalism, and worth a read. There was even a graphic novel version.

Pohl's novels featuring the Heechee are:

Gateway (1977)
Beyond the Blue Event Horizon (1980)
Heechee Rendezvous (1984)
Annals of the Heechee (1987)
The Boy Who Would Live Forever: A Novel of Gateway (2004)

Pohl has also released a collection of short stories in the series:
The Gateway Trip (1990)
http://www.amazon.com/Frederik-Pohl/e/B000APJH4A/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1?qid=1361838829&sr=1-1

The "Ender" Series [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ender%27s_Game_(series)] is interesting for the diversity of topics it explores.
Book 2 Speaker For the Dead turns the triumph of Ender's Game on its head, where the protagonist has been recast by history as the most abhorred person in the galaxy for his "xenocide" of an entire alien species. The injustice of this is similarly turned against the reader by the protagonist who agrees with the popular assessment and is seeking not to redeem his name but to correct the horrible tragedy in which he was instrumental, even central. All this, however, merely is background to the main story of another human-alien misunderstanding that may lead to a repeat of the former tragedy--and Ender must find a way to stop it. And, even more, it is a story of people, of inter-family tragedy, domestic violence, and more. A great work.

Respectfully,
Dr. Bob

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Robert Nowall
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I first read and liked Gateway when it was serialized in Galaxy...one of those stories that was probably over my immature head, but I think I soon "got it." Always thought the ending, the reason Robinette Broadhead (if I'm remembering the name right) feels such overwhelming guilt, was so utterly science-based and science-fictiony that I wondered if I could do something even half as well in my own work. ("No" so far.) I don't think the ending could be guessed by Broadhead's sessions with his mechanical psychiatrist, though.

(More later...and I'll try to stick with Pohl's work, at least, and not sidetrack things into a lengthy discussion of someone else's work like last time.)

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MattLeo
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Dr. Bob -- I'll have to put SPEAKER FOR THE DEAD on my list, then.

Robert -- You raise a point which is important for science fiction writers, which is the use of actual science as a plot element.

I have a few doubts about the accuracy of Pohl's physics. First, there is the classical mechanics of a reaction rocket escaping a gravity well -- or perhaps the feasibility of transferring enough angular momentum in a single impulse from one object to another without killing the occupants of the spacecraft. Second, I think that his description of the differences in frames of reference in general relativity is not quite kosher. But a bona fide physicist would have to weigh in on this. Still, it's nice to even have this problem.

Another useful thing to note in the climax is how world building contributes plot elements. The Heechee ships in appearance are somewhat like the Apollo Command/Service Module combination, but the cylindrical base isn't a service module, it's more like the Apollo LEM. Rather than spoil Gateway, let me point out how if Apollo 13 had been fiction, the architecture of the CSM/LEM spacecraft would have contributed a plot possibility: using the LEM as a lifeboat to ferry the CM capsule back to Earth orbit. In a single stage to orbit/land/re-orbit/land again design (as in most of the old sci-fi stories), a catastrophic failure in the engineering section would necessarily have been the end of the story.

I think the climactic scene in GATEWAY, the scene of Rob's harrowing psychological trauma, was too rushed and hard to follow. It was hard to figure out the characters' plans were and why. A few hundred words in which the characters discuss the predicament and come up with a desperate plan would have made the scene more effective and easier to follow. I wonder why Pohl didn't do that. Perhaps it was the limitations of its original serialized format; or maybe it might have exposed places where he was unsure of his physics.

As for whether Rob's psychotherapy sessions let the cat out of the bag, it definitely did for me. But I suspect I wouldn't have caught on thirty years ago. We're more experienced, canny readers than when we were still wet behind the ears.

By the way, I have no problem if the discussion branches off into other authors. In fact I think that's desirable. My intent in this series is to focus on ideas about technique raised by some well-known work, not on critiquing that work itself. In this example I think I might have strayed more into critique rather than technique than I'd intended.

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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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Well, then, I'm going to branch off into another writer as a possible explanation for why Pohl didn't have "the characters discuss the predicament and come up with a desperate plan."

That may have been a "trope" of sorts among the SF writers of the time. I recall more than one of Poul Anderson's Dominic Flandry books in which the great Flandry "figured out what to do" and then did it, without any discussion or explanation for the reader, sometimes, not even at the end of the book, when it all "worked out."

Drove me nuts when he did this.

Perhaps it was a matter of not wanting to risk spoon-feeding the readers, or perhaps it was a matter of not wanting to show the thought processes and then show the fulfillment of the plan and then show the denouement at the end because doing that risked too much of the same thing (too repetitive)?

Anyway, Pohl wasn't the only one who did it, and perhaps the reader's "didn't quite get it" aspect was supposed to add, somehow, to the "sense of wonder."

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Robert Nowall
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I'm going to have to dig out my copies---the serialization in Galaxy, or the 2004 reprint, I've still got both, and I could easily get the e-book---and check on what Broadhead said in his psych sessions.

On Apollo 13---and also the movie "Apollo 13," which got most of the details right---the decisions that led to the "command module / lunar module" combined vehicle also led to a number of other decisions, including the use of the LM as a lifeboat, well before the actual accident. Also the nature of the flights---the commander commanded the ship, but the ground controlled the mission---meant a great deal of what was done to solve the problem and save the astronauts was done right on Earth---not an option in the Heechee spaceship.

Kathleen's comment about "what to do and he did it" plot reminds me of a quote from "Monty Python's Flying Circus" on "How to Rid the World of All Known Diseases"---"Well, first of all become a doctor and discover a marvellous cure for something, and then, when the medical profession really starts to take notice of you, you can jolly well tell them what to do and make sure they get everything right so there'll never be any diseases ever again." Sloppy plotting, sloppy writing---not what you'd expect from Poul Anderson, actually...

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MattLeo
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Kathleen -- the trope idea is interesting, but I'm inclined to file it under "none of us perfect, at least not all the time." It may be that editors were more lenient with that fault once-upon-a-time, and it may be that being Fredrik Pohl or Poul Anderson has its privileges.

I have no objection to the protagonists improvising as they go along, so long as what they're doing is clear, preferably as they do it but at least eventually. When I look at the critical scene of GATEWAY *exactly* why they are are doing what they are doing and *exactly* how things end up as they did is unclear, and remains unclear as of the end of the story. It feels like a rush job to me.

Robert -- check out Robinette's dream he reports in chapter 21, which make the general nature of what's going to happen pretty clear, even without the Freudian slip. In Chapter 26 the second sidebar (Dr. Asmenion's remarks) identifies the physical instrument of the disaster, and the decisions about crew disposition made at the end of Chapter 26 seals the deal as to the nature of Rob's escape. The exact details of course aren't totally predictable, but the don't matter. The bottom line is that by the middle of Chapter 21 I knew gist of what the big secret was, if not all the secondary details.

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Robert Nowall
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I think you miss the point. The nature of the disaster isn't the point. The point-and-punchline is Broadhead's feelings about the disaster. I don't want to put a spoiler in the discussion in case there are those who haven't yet read Gateway. Remember, too, the story doesn't flow in realtime, but devolves down from Broadhead's discussions with his computerized shrink.
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MattLeo
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By "nature of the disaster" I'm not referring to the physical agency of the catastrophe (although that's telegraphed in Chapter 26). I'm referring to its personal significance to Robinette. That was clear to me by the middle of chapter 21; the only parts that remained to be determined were stage direction.

I suspect what's going on here is something like the way a mystery writer is supposed to play fair. The writer is supposed to give you everything to figure out whodunnit and why, but you're not supposed to actually be able to do that before you reach the stunning conclusion.

I think I was able to piece together the ending because I was uncommonly genre-aware, having gone to college at a time when Marx and Freud were a big deal on the syllabus. I also used psychoanalysis as a motif in a novel sent in the 1930s, so I was primed to make the connection between Rob's dream, his Freudian slip, and the truth he was concealing from himself. I won't spoil the connection for other readers, but Rob's secret was revealed by a common Freudian trope.

In any case, I wonder if it was necessary in a story like this to "play fair". The climax would have worked better for me if I hadn't anticipated it. I wonder whether my disappointment isn't tied to our different perception of psychoanalytic theory today.

Speaking of the sequels, I think I'm going to have to seek them out, because just having the suppressed memory emerge doesn't really finish the story for me.

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Tiergan
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You are making me want to reread them again. I really enjoyed the 1st and second if memory serves me correctly, although its been at least 10-12 years since I read them. I think it was the 5th book that I lost interest in, not sure I even finished it.
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Robert Nowall
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One thing I admire about the book is Pohl's uncanny way of handling the background detail---not just the sidebars but the way he works them into the narrative pages. How different is all is from the world we live in...something that holds up for me now that the world we live in has gone through so many sea changers...

I read, I think, all of the rest of the Heechee Saga (I may have missed a volume or two). The last volume I read (the last one to date, I think) I was less fond of than the others---all the main characters, including Rob Broadhead himself, the narrator, were reduced to computer programs---something the characters boasted of how it freed them but which seemed more than just restrictive to me. This fundamental division between the philosophy of the story and my own philosophy soured the story for me...

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MattLeo
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I agree on the background detail. The question for us is, how did he do it? That's the whole point of the writer's book report series, is trying to figure out how the heck great authors accomplish the things they do.

I have a theory about why the world-building of Gateway works so ell, but I'd like to hear what other people think. How did Pohl make the details of the Gateway world so compelling? Or if you haven't read Gateway, how do other writers do it?

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extrinsic
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Peter Matthiessen uses a similar interlude or interval device in the novel Far Tortuga, 1975, Random House. Actually, Matthiessen uses interlude motifs identical to Pohl's, not verbatim, their milieu and setting contexts and textures are different. Where Matthiessen uses a Coast Guard Notices to Mariner's report or a crew manifest or a weather forecast or a newspaper account of a tragedy at sea or a travel brochure, Pohl uses their equivalents for his novel's setting.

Interludes provide a momentary release of tension, enough to catch a breath. They open narrative distance, perhaps after a lengthy danger-close narrative distance patch. They suspend story time and expand narrative time. They lend voice variety and add verisimilitude to development of milieu (cultural context and texture) and setting (time, place, and situation context and texture), develop mythology, and artfully delay answers to dramatic questions readers are barely, if nonconsciously, conscious of.

Pohl's artful delay interval interludes are aided by reader curiosity about Gateway's awes and wonders and their resonance with the adventurer spirit that thrives for self-identity formation and reinforcement on the edge of frontiers and beyond, gold rushes and journeys of self-discovery and fame and fortune at any risk. Gateway holds special appeals for young and early adult males and older eager to make their mark on the world away from the cloying clutch of momma's apron strings and without so much common sense they're truly aware of the hazards and deadfalls.

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Robert Nowall
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I think the sidebars were differently arranged in the original Galaxy serialization than they are in the one-to-a-page format in most book editions. (My copy says 1978, but the price and list of Pohl's works and mention of a website on the cover makes that impossible---further print info must have dropped out somewhere.) Sometimes there's a certain relation to events in the main narrative, sometimes just an illumination of the world the narrative is taking place in.
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MattLeo
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Pohl uses the sidebars for several purposes. They introduce information or motifs we'll need later. They provide independent confirmation of many of Robinette's perceptions of Gateway, showing that his problems aren't due to his being a screw-up or coward. They introduce events which the main characters will have to react to. They give the author an opportunity to use proxies to comment on the story world and events.

We're all familiar with these narrative housekeeping tasks, the important question for us is not *what* the sidebars do, but *why they work here*. I don't think they'd work in every kind of novel.

I think extrinsic hit the nail squarely on the head; the reader perceives them as relief. Without them the story is oppressive. That's a common problem manuscripts of a dystopic type. Readers crave variety, and the main narration is told from deep inside Robinette's perspective, which isn't such a nice place to be.

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extrinsic
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I also feel the interludes are timely in the other writing principle regard; that is, given when they matter in the moment, place, and situation to the viewpoint character, thus when they also matter to readers. Since readers are closely involved with Robinette, the interludes feel as though they are credibly his observable experiences even if not in the immediate moment, perhaps as recollections rising unbidden from the subconscious. They are also set up previously so that readers are ready for them when they do arise.

Galaxy serialization of Gateway were November 1976, Volume 37 Number 8; December 1976, Volume 37 Number 9; and March 1977, Volume 38 Number 1. I believe the New York Public Library has them on microfilm. ISSN 0016-4003.

[ March 03, 2013, 12:53 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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Another question might be whether such methods would work in fiction written and submitted now, and if not, how else can current writers accomplish similar, if not the same, effects?
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extrinsic
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Interludes come in a near infinite variety and some more or less artless than others. A common interlude throughout literature's opus is that of changing viewpoint characters. Let's see what Achilles is up to while Hector hits a dull patch. Where's Obi Wan now that Anakin is embroiled with Emperor Palpatine? How are Merri and Pippin making out with Tree Beard while Frodo and Sam are held captive in Gondor? They each portray actions and characters relevant to but not immediate to the central actions and characters.

The types of interludes Pohl uses in Gateway are still popular today, more so in creative nonfiction than fiction I think because nonfiction writers are taught and learn their potency and influences.

Another type of interlude common, popular, and challenging is switching between character and narrator voices expressing the action and differing attitudes. That one has been around since the beginning, certainly before Homer. Susanna Clarke uses that method extensively in Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. The quantity of narrator voice in that novel usually is unsuited to my sensibilities. Clarke's works because the voices suit the Victorian milieu and smoothly, artfully transition between voices.

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Robert Nowall
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I've still got my copies of the issues in question...they're just not in front of me when I write this, the way the paperback I mention actually is here.

There's a company, Adventure House, that prints up old pulp magazines as print-on-demand books...unfortunately, Galaxy isn't yet among their offerings...they're limited to ones whose contents have lapsed into public domain, I believe.

I don't believe I've seen Pohl's precise technique of main-story-then-sidebar used in any other novel...it's damned near ubiquitous in print journalism, though. I have a vague memory of Pohl giving an account of where he got the technique from, but I don't remember where I read it---I couldn't find it on his website. Nor do I remember what particular book or writer he borrowed it from, though I think he said something about expanding the technique. (I may be misremembering the whole thing, though.)

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extrinsic
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The way Pohl uses interludes is akin to another writing device that spans the age of fiction. Called false documents, they are fictitious objects that are presented as true objects and lend verisimilitude to a creative work. Books and short stories, personal items like letters, journals, and diaries, official items like ship's logs and professional accreditation documentation, videos, songs, photos, badges, posters, diplomas, licenses, paintings, signs; all things verbal, pictorial, or alpha-numeric in some sense, all a writer's inventions that have a factual manifestation in a creative work.

A famous one that almost got out of hand is Kurt Vonnegut's Kilgore Trout false document novel Venus on the Halfshell, which escaped from the fictitious world and appeared in the real world aided by Philip José Farmer.

[ March 05, 2013, 11:49 AM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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MattLeo
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quote:
Originally posted by extrinsic:
The way Pohl uses interludes is akin to another writing device that spans the age of fiction. Called false documents, they are fictitious objects that are presented as true objects and lend verisimilitude to a creative work.

Elizabeth Peters uses the false document method to overcome the information management and viewpoint limitations of first person narration. After the first few of her Amelia Peabody books, she introduces a fictitious editor who is organizing and publishing the private papers of the late detective/Egyptologist Amelia Peabody. This editor discovers "Manuscript H", written by Peabody's son Ramses Emerson. Manuscript H allows Peters to introduce events beyond Amelia's direct knowledge, and to help the reader triangulate Amelia's eccentric take on events.

This combination gives Peters the full scope of characterization possibilities of first person, while allowing her to overcome the information management limitations.

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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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Amelia Peabody, in my opinion, is prime example of an unreliable narrator.
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extrinsic
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quote:
Originally posted by Kathleen Dalton Woodbury:
Amelia Peabody, in my opinion, is prime example of an unreliable narrator.

Artlessly or artfully?
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extrinsic
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quote:
Originally posted by MattLeo:
Elizabeth Peters uses the false document method to overcome the information management and viewpoint limitations of first person narration.

Another artful use of false documents. The Potter saga also uses them to strong and subtle effect for similar purposes.
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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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quote:
Originally posted by extrinsic:
quote:
Originally posted by Kathleen Dalton Woodbury:
Amelia Peabody, in my opinion, is prime example of an unreliable narrator.

Artlessly or artfully?
Not sure exactly what you are asking. It was okay for me in the first few books, but it began to pale, and I couldn't finish the one that started with her complaining that her editor wanted her to make the accounts of her adventures more dramatic at the same time she was describing crawling through something like a sandstorm in the desert in order to rescue Emerson. Took "disingenuous" to a ridiculous extreme IMHO.

If artlessly = incidentally, not on purpose, then no. She did it very much on purpose and carried it way too far. Overdid it, overkilled it.

If artlessly = not done well, no "art" to it, contrived, clunky, then yes.

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extrinsic
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By artless I mean did the unreliableness of the narrator work for you or call undue attention to itself, detract from the saga, and would you think the unreliableness would or wouldn't work for other readers.

Huck Finn is to a degree an unreliable narrator in Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, partly because of his age and life situation, yet he's preciously astute and ironic at times. Chief Bromden of Ken Kessey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is another. I'd say they are both artful unrelaible narrators in that they don't call undue attention to their unreliableness and their unreliableness positively influences the works.

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MattLeo
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Well, I suppose any shtick will wear thin after awhile, and there's been a LOT of Amelia Peabody books. I'd say that Amelia is a very credible unreliable narrator -- if you see what I mean. We believe that she's perfectly sincere, but we don't believe her take on matters for an instant. We can see exactly how objective reality and Amelia's worldview dovetail, and that makes her improbably heroic adventures seem more plausible. She's a woman who wouldn't hesitate to walk straight into any lion's den armed only with her steel-spined parasol and her confident belief in her own righteousness.

Amelia is a character who is defined by her obvious blindness about herself. Amelia thinks of herself as reasonable and persuasive, but in fact the reader clearly sees that she gets her way by being overbearing and intimidating. Amelia sees herself as enlightened, rational and modern, whereas she is quite obviously a flaming romantic. And while she is clearly not a great beauty, she grossly overstates her plainness, and that makes a serviceable substitute for humility (which she has none of).

Best of all is Amelia's unshakable sense of personal invulnerability. This turns out to be a great way to introduce suspense into first person narration. The reader sees how reckless Amelia is much more than Amelia herself does, even in retrospect. It's very credible. If you've ever had a friend tell you all the reasons the affair she's having with a married man won't turn out badly, you'll know what I'm talking about. It's that knotted feeling you get in the pit of your stomach when faced with somebody who is incurably blind to obvious danger.

A few weeks back I did a writer's book report on TRUE GRIT; Amelia has some important things in common with Mattie, the protagonist of that novel. They're both innocent, bloody-minded and overbearing, yet we still like them because they have agency. Right from the start of their novels they've got an agenda and they're a force to be reckoned with. This seems to be a powerful incentive for readers to like a character, despite the character's obvious faults. Compare this to Robinette in Gateway, who's interesting, but is never exactly likable because he's a downtrodden victim throughout the novel.

On one hand, Gateway shows that we don't have to like a protagonist to be interested in what happens to him. On the other, TRUE GRIT and the Amelia Peabody Series provide a blueprint for persuading readers to like a character with unlikable traits.

Anyhow, I highly recommend CROCODILE ON THE SANDBANK for anyone who wants to see how to do unreliable narration, particularly for comic effect.

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extrinsic
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I see. I lost interest in mystery novels in general because they become series franchises and become formulaic and repetitive from rehashing the same devices at the same point in the action in every installment and because their central characters are static versus dynamic. They transform external circumstances but are themselves unchanged internally by their external journey efforts.

I'm not too enamored of their false internal character complications. Like funny hat guy syndrome, quirky character personailty traits without much dramatic development (antagonism, causation, and tension), if any, and mere nuisance problems not even wanting satisfaction, while idiosyncratic, lack for antagonism and causation, thus transformative potential, and dilute tension's empathy and curiosity.

At least Pohl's Gateway Robinette has survivor's guilt as a credible and dynamic internal complication problem he wants to work on while the action unfolds. He wants absolution for his real or imagined sins.

For me, artful unreliable narration dynamically develops character, sets up for internal transformation, and reveals true circumstances nonetheless. This is an anagnorisis and peripetia outcome; that is, a profound revelation of the true circumstances and a profound reversal of circumstances, respectively, due to the revelation or vice versa.

Franchises cannot easily sustain personal growth over very many installments, certainly not for dozens. The Potter saga accomplishes this in part by the story time and action representing the seven years of maturation from middle grade child through young adult.

[ March 10, 2013, 06:04 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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MattLeo
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Well, to each his own, I guess. I find Robinette's psychological reaction to his trauma unconvincing. Repressed memories were taken for granted as scientific fact in the 1970s, but it is at best scientifically questionable today as to whether they exist at all, or whether recovered memories are usually or even always falsely implanted.

In any case, Robinette's reaction to his past is inconsistent with our currently scientific understanding of psychological trauma. Now we know that memory is much more malleable than we thought, but the firmest memories of all are those that are associated with strong emotions. Traumatic memories, far from being inaccessible, enter vividly and intrusively into the victim's consciousness.

Even in the 1970s repressed memories were largely believed to be the result of infantile conflicts; I don't think they were believed to be formed in adulthood. So Robinette's psychological problems were almost as implausible back then as they are today.

I understand what you're saying about series, though. Even if you love the first several installations, sooner or later you start to be able to divine the actions of the man behind the curtain. One interesting and unusual thing about the Amelia Peabody series is that they take place in historical time, as opposed to some kind of bubble of time in which a character has room for several lifetimes of adventure. CROCODILE ON THE SANDBANK takes place in 1884, and Amelia's age is given as 32. Each novel takes place in a later year than the previous one, and historical events and archaeological discoveries in that year play a part in the stories. As the series moves into the 20th C, a second generation of characters takes over some of the physical derring-do for the aging principals, but even so Amelia is seventy in the the final (19th!) installment of the series.

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extrinsic
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As a literary school of thought, Historicism interprets and analyzes according to a work's eras. When it was written. When it portrays. When it is read. And their contexts and textures. Marxism as a literary school of thought analyzes and interprets political contexts and textures, not solely Marxist ideology, all political ideology, any and all political context and texture, including psychology politics. Psychoanalysis interpretations and analyses have been in fashion for about fifty years. They analyze and interpret psychological influences. like maturation and emotional subtext, and subconscious influences.

New Criticism was an outgrowth of late nineteenth century Formalism and Structuralism and a contemporary of the Modernism era. Historicism, Marxism the literary school of thought, Psychoanalyism, Feminism the literary school of thought, all fall firmly in the Postmodern era.

I favor what New Criticism has since become, strictly textual, meaning within the text, analysis and interpretation of structural and aesthetic qualities: audience accessibility and appeal, expression, and craft. Or Textualism. Textual analysis doesn't evaluate the rightness or wholesome moral goodness of a work, nor the opposite, but analyzes rhetorical functions and their relevance to a discernible target audience. In other words, while Postmodernism challenges and questions presupposed notions of propriety, Textualism analyzes their persuasive influences within a text.

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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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I don't remember the title of the Amelia Peabody book that I just couldn't get into. I think her unreliableness finally got to me, and I just couldn't keep reading.

So far as I can recall, her other protagonists (in her other series), were not unreliable, but straightforward point of view characters.

The "conceit" of Amelia Peabody's unreliableness just began to pale (no, it actually started driving me crazy--I read as many of the books as I did, because I enjoyed the stories, but too much became too much).

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Robert Nowall
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I mentioned a while back that Pohl wrote a commentary on the writing of Gateway, but couldn't remember where I saw it. Well I remembered where---Galaxy, August 1977. It's a relatively brief commentary, but does mention the "sidebar technique," that it's a journalism technique, that John Dos Passos used it in his book 1919, that John Brunner took it a little further in Stand on Zanzibar (which I haven't read, though it's considered a classic, too), and that Pohl himself tried it out (to provide biographic detail) earlier in a collaboration with C. M. Kornbluth titled Presidential Year. (Also the tentative title of Gateway was Beyond the Blue Event-Horizon---which wound up on a later book in the saga.)
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