Monday, 23 May 2011

Book Review | Man Plus by Frederik Pohl

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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.


How thin the line between monster and man...

Roger Torroway is a man, at the outset of Man Plus. A man with a man's problems. He worries about why his wife, Dorrie, doesn't seem to want intercourse with him any more; his career, after an early high when he saved some Russians from certain death on re-entry, appears to have hit a brick wall - though a dead-end job as an astronaut is still something, he supposes; overall, Roger feels as if time is slipping away from him, and there's precious little he can do to coax the beast that ambles ever-onward back.

But Earth's troubles are more serious still. Tensions between the world's most powerful nations are at an all time high... nuclear war is all but a forgone conclusion at this stage, and with the apocalypse knock-knocking at the door, the President has invested all America's hopes and dreams of a better tomorrow - a tomorrow at all - in a mission to Mars.

Enter the Man Plus project. NASA understand that they can't in the time allotted change Mars to suit man, but maybe, just maybe, they can change man to suit Mars.

As the third of three backup subjects, Roger Torroway had good reason to believe the Man Plus would never come a-calling. But when it comes to the punch, all the other candidates start dropping like flies, and Roger finds himself in an unenviable position, with the stakes in play no less than the fate of the human race. Reluctantly, he volunteers to be the man in Man Plus.

Roger Torroway is a man for only moments of Man Plus, however. A few chapters in, he is made a monster of: given a new skin, cameras for eyes, cybernetic joints and a battery-powered brain. Pohl effects his transformation day by excruciating day, culminating in the deeply discomfiting moment when the mad NASA scientists lop off Roger's todger. But alas, the obstacles this courageous man must overcome are not discarded with his manhood; even then, Mars - and so the deliverance of Earth - are a long way off.

I'll confess to taking pleasure in being able to say what I'm about to - that from first to last, Pohl gets right under the skin of this Real American Hero - but there's truth in some wordplay, to wit: while Torroway is not a particularly complex protagonist, nor of a sort set to surprise anyone with even elementary experience of classic SF, Pohl's characterisation makes it ineffably easy to invest in this man to the slaughter. Lonely and conflicted, confused and uncertain and afraid, Torroway is not immediately Man Plus - he is but a man, the same as any other.

Man Plus is a short enough novel to read in an evening, by dint of which its pace seems more solid than perhaps it is - nevertheless, on occasion some readers will wonder whether this mission is ever to get off the ground. But Pohl is smart, I think, to spend most of his time describing the journey than documenting the inevitable destination, for it is the metamorphosis of one man into a Martian-friendly monster that truly sells this Nebula award-winning narrative. And with every surgery... with every irreversible snip, Pohl evokes a deepening sense of dread in a hermetically sealed environment wherein a stray thought or the sound of a pin drop could mean the end of everything.

Man Plus is a fantastically taut tale from "one of the grand old men of SF," quick and easy to digest, yet shot through with such moral and marital dilemmas that you'll likely find your thoughts returning to it well after you've turned the last page. And for all that it was written some 40 years ago - hence its modicum of political incorrectness - Man Plus yet bears a startling sort of relevance to contemporary events, and begs in the erstwhile a timeless question: what would you, yes you, give up to save the world? What lengths would you go to to safeguard a loved one?

In sum, could you be Man Plus too?


Man Plus
by Frederik Pohl

UK Publication: May 2000, Gollancz (SF Masterworks)
US Publication: April 2011, Tor (Reissue)

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1 comment:

  1. Hi Niall,

    Sorry I don't have an e-mail address for you to contact you privately (and I have no idea how to use Google+).

    I'm putting together a high-quality fanzine on all the Gollancz 'SF Masterworks' series of books, in time for Worldcon in August this year in London, and my plan is for each book in the series to have some commentary from readers and authors.

    I'd like to include this review of 'Man Plus', as it's exactly the kind of commentary I'm after. May I have your permission to reproduce it alongside the book (with full attribution, of course, and a link back to your site)? This is for a freely distributed PDF fanzine, so I will not be profiting from its use.

    My background: I'm a two-time winner of the UK's Nova Award for the fanzine 'Zoo Nation', and also a frequent guest editor of the Hugo-nominated fanzine 'Journey Planet' ( ). I also edit the fanzine 'Big Sky', possibly the first SF fanzine from Thailand (which you can also find at ).

    Look forward to hearing from you!


    Peter Young
    Hua Hin, Thailand / Reading, England