Frederik Pohl’s Gateway has the rare distinction of winning both the Hugo and Nebula awards, that is both the award given by critics and by readers (in addition to also winning the John W Campbell Award).
That popular and critical acclaim deservedly recognises the skill of a novel that weaves a story set in space with the exploration of the psychology of one of the main characters. Chapters alternate between sessions with a robotic psychiatrist and accounts of space exploration.
It is best to gloss over the question of why robots are not more widely used in the space exploration of the book (why send humans on risky voyages of discovery rather than, at least initially, machinery?) but that is the only real flaw in the book’s internal logic. It is a minor flaw set against the scope and possibility of the setting – a mystery departed alien life form has left behind numerous spaceships, programmed in ways that humans have not yet understood to take courses to unknown locations.
The result? Prospectors willing to risk their lives on the random lucky dip to find out where a course ends, whether it is in death, tedium or the pay day of finding new technologies to exploit. In some ways therefore Pohl’s novel is Western style gold-rushes transferred to space, with space filling a similar role to that of the desert in separating off the main characters from the rest of society.
Though the book’s future has a multinational feel, with nationals of several countries featuring, in one respect it is very rooted in the concerns of twentieth century American life: worries over how to afford health insurance are as prevalent in the book at they were in American society at the time Frederik Pohl wrote Gateway.
The book had a number of sequels, though Gateway is by far the most famous and is the one that often features in “best of” lists.
One tip – although audio versions of this book are called unabridged, in my experience they exclude the side-bars which form a significant part of the text. The book works without them, just not as well.