Book Review: Man Plus

Frederik Pohl is nothing if not versatile. A contemporary of Asimov and Clarke, he too started publishing during the pulp explosion of the late 1930s at Amazing Stories and John W. Campbell’s Astounding. Unlike Asimov and some other Golden Age authors, however, he didn’t slow down or stop his output with the New Wave of the ’60s and ’70s, but joined in enthusiastically. Thirty years after his first published story, he contributed to the highly influential New Wave anthology, Dangerous Visions. Decades later still, he joined the blogosphere. The Way the Future Blogs won the 90-year-old Pohl a Hugo in 2010.

It’s the New Wave that’s relevant here. The 1970s, if you ask me, provided a particular embarassment of riches for SF fans. 1972, for example, saw the publication of two of my all-time favourite Robert Silverberg novels, Dying Inside and The Book of Skulls, both nominated for (but not winning) the Hugo and Nebula the following year. The Nebula Awards for works published in 1975 included more than 20 novel nominations: particularly impressive non-winners include Samuel Delany’s Dhalgren, and The Mote in God’s Eye from Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. And 1976 saw the publication of Man Plus, a novel which would bring Frederik Pohl a Hugo nomination and a Nebula win.

Man Plus is not a book that would have been written even 15 or 20 years earlier. Though a one-sentence summary of the plot, “Man colonizes Mars,” might make it seem right at home amongst the Heinlein juveniles, Pohl’s novel is very different from the shiny, optimistic rocket-ship adventures of the 1950s. Earlier colonial science fiction stories generally featured capable, morally upstanding young men (very occasionally women), infinitely adaptable to both the familiar and unfamiliar challenges of planetary frontier life. The heroes’ romantic relationships, where they exist, are a source of stability rather than conflict. The inevitable casualties of pioneer living are not long-dwelled-upon and rarely tragic.

But Pohl’s protagonist, Roger Torraway, the not-entirely-willing “Man Plus” of the title, does not feel like a hero. His relationship with his wife is endlessly complicated. The impetus behind the Mars project comes not from a unified and progressive planetary government, but the desperate administration of just one country in a politically-unstable world. And the sacrifices asked of Roger are not superficial, nor does Pohl gloss over them. In fact, it becomes clear early in the novel that this is not really a story about establishing the first colony on Mars, it’s a story about what it is to be human, more a riff on Frankenstein than Red Planet or Farmer in the Sky.

Through a series of operations, Roger literally loses his humanity piece by piece. Ultimately his organic self is reduced to heart, lungs, and brain, while his limbs, skin, eyes, and other parts are all replaced by machine components, or, if “redundant”, simply removed and forgotten. Simultaneously, he must learn to see the world through software-mediated crystalline eyes, capture radiative energy through massive bat-wings, and balance atop powerful, mechanical legs.

And time is short. The president of the United States regularly drops in to appeal to Roger’s patriotism, reminding him that the future of the “Free World” depends on his mission. The planet, on the verge of environmental collapse, simultaneously seems to be moving towards total nuclear war, as governments fight over scarce resources.

The 1970s energy crisis no doubt provided one real-life inspiration to the author, the ongoing Cold War may have been another. But Pohl’s near-future tale manages to still resonate decades later by mostly avoiding obvious dating. He makes no reference to the Soviet Union, instead the main antagonists to the future US-led alliance are the fictional Pan Asians. A lot of Mao’s China (contemporary to the writing of the novel) can be read into this imagined world power, but the connection is mostly implicit.

The environmental crisis — a combination of pollution, implied climate change, and shortage of resources — is also familiar to today’s reader. Again, Pohl drops only hints to the specific circumstances that led the world to such a point. It is thanks to his decision to focus on the general that this vision of the future doesn’t pile up anachronisms for a contemporary reader. With the possible exception of over-large supercomputers, there’s little plot-wise to explicitly tie this novel to a particular decade. Pohl’s then future, both scientifically and politically, could still be our future.

Thematically, on the other hand, Man Plus is very much a novel of 1970s science fiction. Imperfect, complicated characters. Moral ambiguity. No guarantee of an unqualified happy ending. While Mary Shelley’s monster was Victor Frankenstein’s antagonist and victim, Roger Torraway — as the monster — is a tragic and flawed hero. While Shelley’s Romantic-era theme warned against scientific hubris, Pohl describes a struggle against apathy and ignorance.

In common, the monsters of each novel must reconcile themselves to what and who they’ve become. Roger Torraway has the added benefit of a defining life mission (ensuring the human race will go on), but as he feels less connected to his species, he begins to question whether he has any stake in their survival. His friends and colleagues, the ones doing this to him, ask themselves whether the end justifies the means — though they still feel driven to rage against an extinction level “dying of the light”.

The questions first raised in this novel 35 years ago remain intriguing today. For those who haven’t yet read it, the 2011 trade paperback edition of Man Plus from Tor-Forge (under their Orb Books imprint) is a rediscovered treasure. And while the text has stood the test of time, the new cover design by Gregory Manchess is a nicely modern update over the original. Frederik Pohl has written SF for over 70 years and managed to remain relevant throughout. This isn’t the only gem of his worth revisiting, but it’s not at all a bad place to start.

(Orb Books, 2011)

Reprinted with permission from The Green Man Review
Copyright (2012) The Green Man Review

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