Robinette Broadhead, matured since his time on Sigfrid von Shrink’s couch but still greatly troubled by his final outing from Gateway, sponsors a mission to explore a Heechee food factory in the Oort Cloud. The mission has the potential to solve humanity’s ever-spiralling food crisis – but even Broadhead’s wife suspects he is in fact hoping to rescue his lost love Klara from the clutches of a black hole.
This is the sequel to Gateway, a genre classic with a deservedly massive reputation. Continuing the series was a brave decision, especially with Robin Broadhead returning, and Pohl made a few changes in style which effectively reinvigorate the series. Broadhead, whose character narrated all of Gateway, does not ‘speak’ at all for the first two chapters. The narrative jumps between the first and third-person, and follows several different characters as events unfold. Most significantly, Gateway was a very psychological novel, using the Heechee and their ships solely as non-advancing plot devices. BTBEH is a standard hard sci-fi novel, explaining some aspects of interstellar travel and the fate of the Heechee.
It is strange that of all the new characters both human and computerised, it is the former that feel more wooden and dated. From the predictably efficient and grumpy elderly German to the ‘two parts horny to one part stroppy’ teenager, the characters rarely step out of clichés. Yet the computer characters are undeniably compelling. It goes without saying that very few speculative novels pre-dating the internet will manage to look sensible, but in the collection of programmes designed by Broadhead’s wife, Pohl envisions roles eventually realised by the Office Assistant of 1990s computing.
Certainly not everything is positive in this novel. There is the strange preoccupation with sex, especially between the 14-year-old characters, which eventually develops into a flimsy storyline about breeding and seed colonies. Info-dumps are necessary in most novels, but tacking two chapters of game-changing information onto the end of a novel, after the plot-line has finished advancing entirely is disorientating (but pleasantly reminiscent of Contact). I can only assume the constant mention of Gelle-Klara Moynlin is a teaser for subsequent novels – but it reads like a weak attempt at continuity.
As a sequel to Gateway, this can only be a weak follow-up. But Pohl makes clear attempts to distinguish this novel from its predecessor, and it is only fair to point out that as its own novel, this was a highly entertaining and enjoyable space opera.