At a glance
Although Man Plus uses many classical SF elements such as travelling to and colonizing Mars, an apocalyptic world view, and the technology-driven transformation of a human into a cyborg body, the actual core of the book is the exploration of what happens in a person's mind if that person becomes disconnected from his or her human surroundings and even his or her own human nature.
This unusual focus on psychology, combined with an interesting narration technique, makes Man Plus quite a special story. Because of this, and because it is simply a good and entertaining read, I can wholeheartedly recommend this book. If you already know and like other works by Frederik Pohl, reading Man Plus is a must. If you belong to the minority of the SF reading world population who has not yet made contact with Pohl's books - why not start with this one?
The situation on planet Earth is not good: The cold war has never ended, the world is rife with civil unrest and small wars due to rising population levels and dwindling resources, and the general mood is pretty apocalyptic. For some people, among them the President of the U.S., reaching out to Mars and being the first to grab a piece of "the only real estate that's worth having" somehow seems to make a difference.
In order to stay on top of the competition in this new space race, the Americans have launched the Man Plus programme, a top-secret part of the space program whose goal is to solve the problem of how to support a space mission to, or even a colony on, distant Mars from Earth. The programme's solution is as simple as it is radical: Remove the need for support altogether, by sending astronauts who are no longer regular human beings, but who have been bio-engineered and transformed into Martians that are self-sufficient and capable to survive in the hostile environment of Mars without artificial help such as a space suit.
Man Plus subjects are volunteers from among the regular space program's astronauts. The current subject is Willy Hartnett, and after 18 months of surgical modifications it has become increasingly hard to recognize the human being in him. As the book puts it, he has become a man plus large elements of hardware: a cyborg.
Then, something happens, and the book no longer tells the story of Willy Hartnett, but of his designated backup and successor, Roger Torraway. It tells the story of how Roger unexpectedly has to take up the lead role of the Man Plus project, of how he is transformed physically and emotionally into something else, and of what happens when he finally gets to Mars. And believe me, there are a few surprises in that story!
The book begins with a powerful and masterful exposé: We are being presented with Roger Torraway, who is the prototype of an astronaut as we imagine them: a healthy, strong, good-looking, self-assured, happily married man. We sympathize with him, but already we suspect that something is going to happen to him - why else would he be the protagonist of the story? Our suspicions become more firm as we read along and find allusions to a mysterious, nameless "monster"; we are also informed about a government project called "Man Plus" - and we all know in the back of our minds that governments don't have souls, and that government projects tend to have an awful other side. Again the monster, and all sorts of unnamed - unnameable! - things flit through our field of mind vision. Then, all of a sudden, the story teller stops playing with our imagination: The monster is fitted with a name, Will Hartnett, and a shutter opens to reveal all the terrible details. Although described in crisp sentences of unemotional scientific observations, we cannot help but cringe!
This is the art of writing! It is gripping, it manipulates the reader, it evokes emotions and provokes thought. Besides, it doesn't hide behind technobabble. This last remark is mainly inspired by my previous read, Singularity Sky, which I found rather annoying because of its heavy use of technological buzzwords. Man Plus, in contrast, explains technical topics very well and generally employs technology as a means to "improve" the story of Roger Torraway's growing alienation from himself and his human surroundings. This alienation actually is at the core of the book. The larger picture of a world that is still in the grip of the cold war merely serves as a background for the story's main theme, which is the exploration of the psychological changes that may occur in reaction to radical physical changes inflicted on a person's body.
Interestingly, the story is told from slightly changing points of view: Most of the narration is written in the regular third person singular with Torraway as the protagonist, but sometimes other characters become the focus of the story, or the narration disconnects entirely from specific characters in order to provide a dry and concise explanation for why something is happening. Last but not least, there are occasional but intriguing passages where the point of view suddenly becomes personal and a mysterious "we" narrator pops up, about whose identiy the reader is left to speculate.
In the final quarter or so, when Roger actually comes to Mars, the book in my opinion loses a bit of its previous brilliance. The story is still well-written and interesting and all that, but since Roger is now completely transformed into a cyborg the part of the story that was concerned with his changing personality is largely finished. What remains is the imagery of the Martian landscape with its new inhabitant, a bit of action and suspense, and a nice surprising twist to the story.
I generally like Frederik Pohl's fluent and casual style of writing. Man Plus combines this style with a very well thought-out story to form a book that today remains as relevant as when it was written more than 30 years ago. Many of the technological things described by Pohl seem quite reasonable today, and of course, the trials and tribulations of human nature that are at the core of the book, will never lose actuality.
Apparently, Pohl wrote a follow-up novel, Mars Plus, in collaboration with Thomas T. Thomas. I have not read this book, and I don't see why I should, after all Man Plus has stood on its own feet for almost 20 years.
- Man Plus
- 215 pages. Millennium (an imprint of Victor Gollancz). ISBN 978-1-857-98946-5. Volume 29 in the series "SF Masterworks"