This story is told in a very conversational tone directly between the reader and Robinette Broadhead, who despite the name is actually a male. There is some intersessional text – either classifieds, mission reports or interviews with a professor who is a Heechee expert that add some additional background, but even those seem informal for the most part. The story alternates between Rob’s present as he undergoes psychological therapy with an artificially intelligent program (described more as an expert system) and flashbacks of his past while on Gateway. Gateway is an astroidal outpost abandoned by an ancient alien race referred to as the Heechees. Very little is known of the Heechees except for some of the perplexing artifacts they leave behind, including many hundred small spaceships – named Ones, Threes and Fives for the number of people they can hold. These ships travel to fixed, though initially unknown locations at faster than light speed. Despite FTL capabilities their voyages may span many months. The general idea is that volunteers (prospectors) take these ships out on a voyage of discovery, documenting their progress and findings. If they survive the trip and the destination they could earn a handsome reward depending on what information or artifacts they bring back. This is what motivates everyone, though survival rates are about 66% and truly profitable voyages only about 5%.
While the plot is somewhat interesting with evidence of an ancient alien race, unfortunately the story really isn’t about piecing together the mystery of the Heechee. It seems to me with intelligent machines such as Sigfrid much of the unknown risk can be taken out of prospecting. Rather it just sets up an environment where Rob can repeatedly display his cowardice. As a man with little to no means (having only been able to get to Gateway by winning a lottery), and very little to lose, he displays an annoying lack of courage when he decides time and again to avoid prospecting. I found Rob to be an unlikeable character. He womanizes constantly (even when mourning his betrayal of his one real relationship – Klara), beats her up when she slept with someone else (nothing he hadn’t done himself), doesn’t help his friends in need (such as leaving behind the cripple who wanted to go prospecting with him), abuses peoples privacy when he overrides the AI therapist (Sigfrid) , always motivated by money and medical coverage and exhibited latent homosexual tendencies (not that I have any problems with homosexual characters, but it was just another way I couldn’t relate to him).
Both threads of the story (flashbacks on Gateway and therapy sessions) build to the final scene where on a mission with two attached Fives and a full crew of ten including Bob and Klara they encounter a strong gravitational star (a step removed from a black hole). The consequences of this encounter is that they are trapped – the only hope of escape is to jettison one ship towards the center of gravity while the other (with the full crew) is launched in the opposite direction hopefully releasing it. Meanwhile the intense gravitational attraction has a relative effect on time – it slows down. This scene almost seems lifted by the movie Interstellar. The tragedy occurs when Rob, as the last onboard the empty Five, purposefully jettisons the other vessel towards the center of gravity, hence allowing his ship to escape where he returns home to collect a substantial reward. The therapy sessions are a result of his survivor guilt. Though it is never stated whether Rob’s intention was to sacrifice himself or not, all his self centric behaviour up to this point suggests he reacted to survive out of fear. He’s not one to sacrifice himself, even if for Klara. His guilt has no end since the rest of the crew experiences time at a much slower pace for them he has only just left and they are only now experiencing his betrayal. They will remain in this state for his entire natural life. The thought of this means he is unable to deal with his guilt.
In summary I didn’t really like this book and am surprised it cleaned up in the awards categories. I didn’t like it because I didn’t like the main (and really only) character, Rob. He didn’t seem to have sufficient cause to avoid the risks of being a prospector (considering he had no family and grew up mining since he was 12), and was generally an immoral coward. Furthermore, the system of rewards given to the prospectors seemed contrived – there would be far better ways of exploiting the Heechee ships. Lastly the setting was somewhat dated as there were many references to “tapes”, the Soviet Union and the mainframe sized computer that was Sigfrid, as well as dated dialog.