I read “The Annals of the Heechee” while I was in Detroit. *Annals* is the fourth book of the “Gateway” series by Frederik Pohl.
As you may or may not know the Heechee series centers around the story of Robinette Broadhead who escaped the nasty life of lower-class workers in a dystopian future to become a prospector on the Heecee asteroid, “Gateway”.
The astroid was discovered years before the story begins to contain working space-ships left there by a mysterious race, the Heechee. Using them is extremely risky, however, as the humans don’t know how to control them at all. By sheer luck, Broadhead strikes it rich and becomes a prominent figure who shapes Earth history when mankind finally do encounter Heechee. Things don’t go quite so well for Robinette, as he is killed in book three and converted into a digitized person.
Book 4 picks up some time after the Heechee technology has solved most of mankind’s pressing origin. However, book three had left one loose end that Pohl had to tie up: Namely the reason for why the Heechee ran. This “Foe”, the so-called Assassins is a race of energy beings who have been known to eradicate all intelligent life in the galaxy, and to introduce so much additional matter into the universe to cause its expansion to slow down. Broadhead and the other characters speculated that the Assassins aim to cause a big crunch and to re-create the universe to their liking afterwards.
Unfortunately for Pohl book three not only suffers from the lack of the mysteries and powerful motives that had powered the first two – and to some extent the third – book; it is exceedingly difficult to relate to the protagonists who are all digital personalities. There are a few two-dimensional “special” children with the personality of cardboard. And there are two “former terrorists”, who escape their high-security prison and kidnap aforementioned children. These two antagonists are about as well-developed as the Whale in Hitch-hiker’s Guide. Pohl tries so desperately to build them up as villains that he has to resort to having one of them enjoy child-rape. This is never actually carried out in the book, except for the use of robots as substitutes, and then only hinted at; but it just reads as a cheap device.
The greater plot, however, is about mankind’s contact with the Assassins. These energy-beings use the children to travel to Earth, infiltrate the global computer network, and, oh-wonder, talk to Broadhead as he tries to free the children from their predicament. Unfortunately, Pohl also manages to screw up this villain: Turns out, and I am sorry to spoil this, that the Assassins aren’t really evil. The extermination of intelligent races was just a mistake, one they won’t repeat with mankind and Heechee, and anyway, their manipulation of the universe is a good thing because it will save the universe from the big freeze (when the universe expands so much that stars are extinguished and the entire universe literally freezes solid). By the time this will happen, Mankind and Heechee will have evolved to become energy beings too – because, what afterall are AIs and digitized personalities but beings made of energy?
I have to be honest here – The entire book is one long disappointment. Pohl has obviously lost whatever creative energies he had in creating the series; he thoroughly manages to end the series in one big anticlimax. He’s screwed up two good mysteries (Heechees and Assassins) with boring explanations. He’s screwed up his characters. He’s managed to go out not with a bang, but with a whimper. It’s not that the book is really badly written; it’ll just bore you to death. The only thing that kept me going was the determination to find closure to the Heechee saga. I did not find it, and fans of the series should just ignore the fourth part.
Sometimes leaving things open is better than finding a bad explanation.
I paid $1 for this book in a used bookstore, and I consider it a waste of a perfectly good dollar, not to mention my time.