Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Review: Man Plus by Frederik Pohl

Man Plus by Frederik Pohl
Published : Random House, 1976
Awards Won : Nebula Award
Awards Nominated: Hugo, John W. Campbell, and Locus SF Awards

The Book:

In the not-too-distant future, a desperate war for natural resources threatens to bring civilization to a crashing halt. Nuclear warships from around the globe begin positioning themselves as the American government works feverishly to complete a massive project to colonize Mars.

Former astronaut Roger Torraway has agreed to be transformed by the latest advances in biological and cybernetic science into something new, a being that can survive the rigors of Mars before it is terraformed. Becoming Man Plus will allow him to be the linchpin in opening the new Martian frontier…but not without challenging his humanity as no man has ever been challenged before.” ~barnesandnoble.com

Man Plus  is my July book for WWend’s Grand MasterReading Challenge.  Frederik Pohl is not a completely new author to me, as I have read and loved his novel Gateway. Man Plus has some interesting ideas, but it did not replace Gateway as my favorite Pohl novel to date.

My Thoughts:

On starting Man Plus, one of my first reflections was that the writing style seemed like a cross between a novel and an observational journal.  It seemed as though the story was being told by group of detached overseers, who were describing the progress of the ‘Man Plus’ project. This impression is deliberate, though the reason for it is not addressed until near the end.  However, the style—which tended towards blunt, choppy sentences—sometimes made the story feel very dry.  There was also a tendency to introduce each secondary character with a brief description of their physical appearance, skills, and main personality traits, and then not to develop them much further throughout the novel.  As an example of this technique, and of the writing style in general, here is the introduction of Roger Torroway’s wife, Dorrie:

Torraway… married a green-eyed, black-haired teacher of ceramic sculpture. Dorrie on Earth was what made him yearn, and Rog in orbit was what made Dorrie a celebrity herself, which she loved.

It took something special to make an astronaut’s wife newsworthy. There were so many of them. They looked so much alike. The newspersons used to think that NASA picked the astronauts’ wives out of the entries in Miss Georgia contests. They all had that look, as though as soon as they changed out of their bathing suits they would show you some baton-twirling or would recite “The Female of the Species.” Dorrie Torraway was a little too intelligent-looking for that, although she was also definitely pretty enough for that. She was the only one of the astronaut wives to get major space in both Ladies’ Home Journal (“Twelve Christmas Gifts You Can Bake in Your Kiln”) and Ms.(“Children Would Spoil My Marriage”).” 

By far, the main focus of the book was the change and development endured by the main character, Roger Torroway. Throughout Roger’s painful transformation into a ‘Martian’, I enjoyed watching the slow shift in the way he perceived himself and others. I also found it interesting to see how others’ perception of him changed, as he became less and less physically human.  However, aside from my interest in seeing their reactions to the changes in Roger Torroway, I didn’t find the other characters of the novel to be particularly engaging. The main drama subplot, which I found somewhat tedious, involved Roger being jealous that his wife was sleeping with someone else.  Compared with how interesting I found the transformation of Roger and its psychological effects, the infidelity-related-angst subplot just seemed kind of prosaic.

For me, the physical transformation of Roger was even more interesting than his psychological transformation. There were extensive descriptions of the procedures that were used to turn him into a creature that could live unaided on Mars.  While they were usually a bit dry, these descriptions were actually one of my favorite parts of the book.  For instance, there was a fairly long section about filtering visual input, and how giving Roger the physical ability to take in more information would be dangerous if the data were not mediated before reaching his human brain.  The novel also did not gloss over the difficulty of Roger learning to operate his new body, which I thought was an interesting touch.  While the details of the project were very entertaining, the intended human goal of this project was more than a little hazy.  Roger could not reproduce others like himself, so he could not found a colony of  ‘Men Plus’ on Mars. 

The political reasoning behind the project involved the most dated aspect of the novel—the social and political climate. The world seemed to be caught in the grip of a increasingly violent continuation of the Cold War, in which the last bastions of the ‘Free World’ were on the verge of being wiped out, and the threat of nuclear war hung over all.  I’m guessing that extrapolation seemed a lot more likely in the mid-1970s than it does now, though the energy crisis he describes might still happen in our future.  Socially, the odd mixture of sexism and socially acceptable promiscuity seemed like something that might have been imagined from the vantage point of the 1970s.  The dated feeling of the global society made kind of a strange contrast with the inclusion of advanced technology that is still nowhere near becoming a reality today. In short, this novel definitely doesn’t knock Gateway down as my favorite Frederik Pohl novel, but there’s still enough of interest for it to be worth a read.

My Rating: 3/5

Man Plus has a number of interesting ideas, but I didn’t feel like it was entirely satisfying as a novel.  The writing is bland and short, a lot of the politics and social attitudes seemed very dated, and most of the characters failed to make much of a significant impression.  While the soap-opera drama of Roger Torroway’s troubled marriage was not very engaging, his transformation into a being that could live on Mars did capture my imagination (though the reasoning behind the program didn’t make all that much sense).  I think the novel was strongest when it was detailing the many alterations that would be made to Roger’s body, and when it was addressing the psychological changes that such a severe physical alteration would cause.  I don’t think this is Pohl’s strongest novel, but I think that it is still worth reading for those interested in his work.

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