I spend a lot of time reading what you guys have to say about items in the blog, and I have to say I’m impressed with what a smart and rewarding bunch you all are. (Of course I would probably say something of that sort whether it was true or not, but in this case it happens to be true.) So when one of you says that there is something you would like me to write about, and I can see how to do it, I try to comply. One of you, for instance, has recently asked me to try to describe what thought processes led me to the writing of my novel Gateway. That’s a welcome question not only because I’m particularly fond of that book but also because I can answer it.

The process that led to Gateway began with a remark by some scientist — I’ve forgotten which one — in an attempt to explain why, if there are other technically advanced civilizations in the universe, as many of us would like to believe, none of them have dropped in to visit us. That could simply be, he said, because they got an earlier start than we did. That is, life appeared on their planet thousands, or even millions, of years before it did on Earth, and therefore their dominant race of beings reached their spaceflight era long before we did. (After which, who knows? Perhaps they killed themselves off, of doing which there is all too good a chance that we might yet. Or they simply lost interest. Or — as I say — who knows?)

In that case, they might have visited Earth dozens of times, but finding no one here with interests closer to their own than the australopithecines — or, for that matter, than the trilobites or even the slime molds — they got discouraged and went away. And the only way we would have of learning that they had existed would be if they had left something of theirs behind for our archeologists to find.

That seemed like a territory suitable for the construction of a good science-fiction story to me, so I began trying to do it.

A lot of writers have minds more orderly than my own. These tidier souls tend to write out a synopsis of what the book is going to be, all the way to the conclusion, before they write a single line of the actual text. This approach to the how-to of writing is simply alien to my nature. Instead, when I get a sort of general idea I simply start to write, making it up as I go along. Writing, then, is pretty much a process of discovery for me. As I write I see more and more of the implications of that original idea, and I shape my story line accordingly.

Usually, it’s a fairly efficient process. I seldom have to go back and x out passages because they lead nowhere. But in the case of what ultimately became Gateway I made several false starts. I finally wrote a novella called “The Merchants of Venus.” That one made the assumptions that aliens, long ago, had indeed visited our solar system; but that they had paid little attention to Earth, for reasons we have no way of knowing, but perhaps because they altruistically didn’t want to interfere with the development of the primitive human terrestrials; and that they had accordingly then focused most of their attention on the planet Venus. And, since Venus’s surface conditions are lethally hot and nasty, they had dug huge tunnels, kept at a livable temperatures and filled with breathable air, in which they had established colonies of their scientists to study the planet — much as we humans have done in Antarctica.

Then, much later, the aliens have gone away and the human race has developed to the point of having space travel that is efficient enough to allow (rich) tourists to visit the planet, where they buy souvenirs excavated from the old alien tunnels. The tunnels were cleaned out by the aliens when they left, but they weren’t careful enough to get every last item. (Some of the “trash” they left behind is technologically advanced and very valuable to its discoverers.)

I was reasonably satisfied with the novella. But I couldn’t get those aliens out of my mind.

So a year or so later I went back to the drawing board and began writing the story of Robinette Broadhead, who visits the asteroid where the aliens have parked their surplus spaceships, and uses them to explore far-off star systems.

However, I had been thinking for some time that it would be nice for a novel’s readers if the author could give them some way of seeing everything that’s interesting in the background of the story. Not just what the author believes is relevant. And so I began writing the “sidebars” that festoon the book.

Meanwhile I was doing a lot of traveling around that time, writing on the book in airplanes and hotel rooms. (Some of the sidebars have a slight Canadian flavor. That’s because the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation had invited me to come up to Toronto to do commentary on the upcoming rendezvous in orbit of a U.S. Apollo and a Soviet Soyuz spacecraft, and I lived there for a week or so.)

Then, when it was basically all written, I assembled all the parts and read it over.

I was reasonably content with most of it, but the short last chapter didn’t move me. So I rewrote it. Then I rewrote it again.

Then I rewrote it again and kept on doing it until I could go no farther — each time giving better and better lines to my favorite character, the computer psychoanalyst, Sigfrid von Shrink.

And that’s the way, under the title Gateway , it got published.

17 Comments

  1. Stefan Jones says:

    Gateway is not only a great novel, but delved into subjects that took a while to get their “legs” in SF and futurist thinking. Like brain-downloading, or uploading, or whatever it is that the Singularity fans call it.

  2. Mike G. says:

    I was just thinking it would be fun to reread Gateway and see Sigfrid on my kindle. But d’oh, no Kindle edition…

    I guess I’ll have to find my paperback on my shelves :)

  3. Andy says:

    My parents had a pretty extensive library, but neither of them were big into sci-fi (my father has a particular disdain for the genre). There were, however, three sci-fi novels on the shelves (all contributed by dad): Childhood’s End, The War of the Worlds, and Gateway.

    Gateway was my favorite by a comfortable margin. The sidebars so effectively sketched the outlines of the state of human society, but left the details provocatively to the reader’s imagination. There were a lot of big ideas (or so it always seemed to me) in that slim little volume.

    I have no idea what happened to that copy of Gateway. No doubt it fell apart around the nth reading or got misplaced during a move, but I still occasionally revisit the story and I never leave disappointed.

  4. Nathan Myers says:

    I’ve always wondered about the odd choice of your protagonist’s name. The choice calls attention to itself, and leaves the reader wondering why. Then it’s (I think) left unanswered. It seems like Nabokov’s gun left unfired.

  5. Heather Massey says:

    Thanks for your art, Mr. Pohl!

  6. Jeff says:

    That’s pretty much how I read it, too.

    This was one of the few books that I liked that I suggested to my wife and she actually liked it, too.

  7. Michael Parker says:

    Gateway is one of my all-time favorite novels in any genre. And when I first read it was the only one that I knew of that started on a psychiatrist’s couch and presented therapy and mental illness in such a realistic, humanizing way. I think that’s the strength of the novel, aside from the wonderful story of the alien ships at Gateway, that we can really connect with Bob, warts and all. I think it could be adapted into a terrific film if handled correctly. It’s definitely recommended reading for anyone with an interest in sf and even for those who don’t. Love it.

  8. Scott Kennedy says:

    Thanks for sharing this story of Gateway’s genesis. It’s a book that has stuck with me since I first read it. The state of the earth predicited in it still seems prescient. On a side note, the two text-based Legend games based on it remain among my favorites of that genre as well.

  9. Marc says:

    I’m not a big book reader or even a fan of the format (for Stories) in-fact outside of Gateway there’s only one or two Novels I’ve read completely in my adult life. I grew up with Video games, TV and Film. Typically the books in my life were engineering manuals, encyclopaedias or maybe a circuit diagram or two… So after a chance reading of the Gateway synopsis in my local book store a few years ago, I was totally and utterly captivated by the concept and knew I had to buy (after first checking for Cinematic version of said Novel) and read Gateway!

    ….. Fascinating to read a little background about my favourite Novel. Such a great story, it captured my imagination and is hugely inspiring on a personal level.

    Thank you!

  10. john miller says:

    Over here in England we have pubs, which are a bit different to your bars. They tend to have fewer angst-ridden drinkers.

    The most popular drinkers in the pubs are the raconteurs. Something – perhaps out of the ordinary, but sometimes in it as well – happens to them, they tell you about it in their own way and you laugh your head off.

    Then there are the blokes who receive a joke via SMS and read it out.

    No matter how funny the SMS joke, it\’s always worse than the raconteur\’s tale.

    Which seems to prove that it\’s 95% delivery and 5% content.

    Which also explains why my favourite authors are (old authors never die!) Zelazny, Delany, Stephenson and yourself.

    Congratulations on the Hugo. I toasted you with a pint of bitter and because I hold you in such high regard it seemed appropriate to do it several times. Thanks for that…

  11. Pete Miller says:

    Thanks for the story of the genesis of the book. Gateway is one of my favorites of yours. Congratulations on the Hugo!

  12. Alan says:

    Thanks for the story of how you came up with the idea of this great book.
    Gateway is one of my favorite books.
    I read it every few years.
    Thanks for writing it.

  13. Cliff Winnig says:

    It’s heartening to know that you explore your ideas by writing the actual book. I have described my own writing process as being like reading, only slower. I write the first draft to find out what happens next. Sometimes I have a pretty good, if murky idea of what’ll happen, but often the coolest parts of the plot emerge from the writing itself, totally unanticipated.

    I read Gateway at an impressionable age, when I was in junior high. I was probably a bit young for some of the grownup themes, but in that way the book itself helped me to grow up, to understand how adults could get screwed up and develop psychological baggage. Also, its society, imagery, and mysterious aliens have stayed with me. One thing I liked about the Heechee was that, even after they actually appeared in the series, they stayed interesting because they were both alien and, as individuals, people I could empathize with.

  14. Michael R. says:

    Having only started exploring writing, I can sympathize with your methodology. I have tried the “organized” approach, and find it stifles the creativity in me.

    Came to this by way of an io9 article on “Gateway”. Now I’m going to have to go track a copy down and re-read it.

    Thanks for the great work!

  15. Paul J. Kossick says:

    I was just out bookshopping today, and unfortunately had to order a used copy of Heechee Rendezvous, as I’ve recently decided to re-read the whole saga. Books 3 through 5 seem to be out of pritn, but that got me to thinking; wouldn’t it be great to have the whole Heechee Saga in one volume, ala the ‘More Than Complete Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy’? Anyways, I suppose I can dream. Here’s hoping I can find the rest of them when I get that far!

  16. Kirk says:

    Fermi may be the scientist you are thinking of. Timothy Ferris, in the show ‘Life beyond Earth’ had a good comeback to that. One evening he invited a lobster to dinner. He opened his door and waited at the dining table for the lobster to show up. The lobster never came. It was an example of ‘absence of proof is not proof of absence’.

  17. shelleybear says:

    “A lot of writers have minds more orderly than my own. These tidier souls tend to write out a synopsis of what the book is going to be, all the way to the conclusion, before they write a single line of the actual text. This approach to the how-to of writing is simply alien to my nature. Instead, when I get a sort of general idea I simply start to write, making it up as I go along. Writing, then, is pretty much a process of discovery for me. As I write I see more and more of the implications of that original idea, and I shape my story line accordingly.”

    Fred, I wish my printer was working.
    I want a copy of this framed and hanging over my computer.