Thursday, April 22, 2010

Man Plus - Frederik Pohl

Although Frederik Pohl already head quite a career in science fiction writing and publishing, his first published piece appeared in 1937, he did not turn to full time writing until 1969. It turned out to be a good move, in the 1970s he produced a number of highly regarded science fiction novels. I read Gateway a while ago, a novel that won just about every major award in the field. The year before that novel was published Man Plus had already earned him a Nebula. Gollancz picked a number of his titles for their SF Masterworks collection so thankfully these books remain in print. I guess Man Plus shows it age just a bit but I still found it very much worth reading.

In the near future, as seen from the 1970s, we may well be there now, the world is in a pretty bad shape. The sheer size of the human population the earth has to support has put a strain on the resources available. Hunger is a serious problem, as are dictatorial regimes. The US finds itself increasingly alone as a bastion of democracy and capitalism. When a conflict with the Chinese threatens to get out of control and result in thermo-nuclear warfare the US president is desperate to direct the attention of the public elsewhere. Thus NASA's program to create a man capable of surviving on the surface of Mars is born.

To make surviving the harsh conditions on Mars possible, the human body needs quite a few adaptations and improvements. In fact, by the time the surgeons and scientists are done, Roger Torraway, the man unfortunate enough to be bumped up to undergo the procedure after the unfortunate death of the first candidate, is barely recognizable as a human being. Torraway may look like a monster, he's still a human being put under enormous strain as the importance of the mission becomes clear. It is up to the people around him to make sure he arrives on Mars a sane man.

So what is this book about? Appearances I guess. What's most striking about the novel is how people start treating Roger once he has begun the process of changing into man plus. Intellectually they know he's human but nobody can help seeing the monster. Interestingly enough Roger shares this response on some level, both when looking at his predecessor and when coming to terms with his own changed body (if it can be called such) and the way his altered senses perceive the world. Just about everybody feels somewhat uneasy about the creation of man plus and can't quite put a finger on why.

The narrative structure of this novel is quite peculiar. We see all the characters from the third person, with passages narrated by the mysterious 'we'. Like in Gateway Pohl ends the book with a punch. I won't spoil it for you but take some time to consider who 'we' might be along the way. It's an interesting puzzle. A lot of what I want to say about this novel is linked to the final part of it and even with a book that's thirty years old I don't really want to spoil the ending. Let's just say that a number of very big themes in science fiction are present but very downplayed in this book. That surprised me more than a little. To give you an example, very little of the novel actually takes place on Mars, the process of getting there is much more important to the story.

Man Plus includes the dark sense of humour is included in everything I have read of Pohl so far. His portrayal of the US president in particular borders on the satirical at times. The satirical tone of some parts of the novel combined with the grotesque changes to Torraway's physique keep the reader right on the edge of how serious all this should be taken. Over the course of the novel he asks the readers to examine some quite difficult questions and keeps on asking them right up to the end of the novel. I suppose one could take this to be a fairly light read. I didn't find it so. In fact it took me quite a while after I finished it to formulate some coherent opinions on this book. The last few chapters in particular leave the reader with something to think about. They also leave the door wide open for a sequel, which I understand was written in the 1990s.

I'm not sure if I want to read the sequel yet. I liked the ending as it is, no need to go into what happens next really. Man Plus is a puzzling book and a very enjoyable read. I must admit I have my doubts about some of the books Gollancz included in their Masterworks series but this book certainly earned a place on the list. I guess I am going to trust their judgement and pick up a copy of a third book by Pohl they included, the 1980 novel Jem, sometime soon.

Book Details
Title: Man Plus
Author: Frederik Pohl
Publisher: Gollancz
Pages: 215
Year: 2000
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-1-85798-946-5
First published: 1976

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