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.