The first-person protagonist, Bob Broadhead, is raised and works the food mines of Wyoming. He is the underprivileged wage-slave loved by exploiting hierarchies since man stepped out of the slime and mingled in groups. Bob gets lucky early on and wins everyone's daydream—the Lotto—which is enough to space-fly him to Gateway, a discovered asteroid which has been hollowed out and equipped with 1000 or so spaceships. They are authenticated as the remains of a lost race called the Heechees, who disappeared as mysteriously as the Mayans, but to the timeframe of 500,000 years ago. The Scientists have figured next to nothing about them, so, playing on man's greed for not discovery but cash, The Corporation offers bundles to anyone willing to jump into one of these Heechee ships, push some buttons to activate the automatic destination drive, and take off.
The ratio of returnee to neversee'emagain is despicable. Journey's end has changed a lot in half of a millennium. Missions do not abate, however. More desperate people make desperate attempts to come back with a prize HeeChee artifact worth millions to the Corporation, even if most of them are simply “prayer fans and fire pearls”(Easton Press, no ISBN, published 1986, c.1977, p.10). Even ships that return with their riders literally turned inside out and splattered all over the cockpit doesn't deter these “new fish”, just adds more fear into the adrenalin of possible fame and fortune.
Bob has a lot of problems manning up for his first mission, since he doesn't have a lot of courage when it comes to facing tight-odds death. Since he's never achieved anything outside the quirky luck of gambling which put him on Gateway in the first place, paralyzing anxieties become a lifestyle. Actually, he doesn't have a lot of honor, respect for others including authority, or self-sacrifice. He's full of lust, denial, defense mechanisms. Anotherwords, he's the role model for most of us.
But he does meet a woman that pulls him away from the others. Her company gives him the strength for a first mission—with her and a ménage à trios of gay guys—and their last mission ends in her death and his fortune.
Author Pohl structures his novel with eccentric techniques left over from the New Wave SF writers of the decade before. The main narrative is first-person flashback, with real time solely spent in his robot psychiatrist's office which he baits, fights with, struggles for dominance, and generally uses his best avoidance techniques to remain uncured. The story is further stuttered with one-page proclamations current to the present situation, like official come-ons from Corporation, personal notations from unmet crewmen, classified ads, and segments from lectures on Heechee mysteries. It fits together in a nice package giving information, developing characterization, and fleshing the imagination—all while hiding the enigmas, building the emblematic, and maintaining the needed suspense for page-turning interest.
In the end, of course, Bob learns the lessons of life: mortality is capricious, the reward is the struggle, people can really cherish oneanother, and that you are your own worst enemy in most situations. If it wasn't for the Heechees, this would qualify for a Mainstream genre tag. Anotherwords, pass up the Ray Guns, boys, and concentrate on who's holding 'em. And this is why it is considered an historical benchmark in the ongoing, creative development of Science Fiction.