Pluses and minuses to be found in Man Plus

What it all comes down to is that a colony on the Moon can be supported from Earth. A colony on Mars cannot. At least a colony of human beings cannot.

But what if one reshapes a human being?

Title: Man Plus
Author: Frederik Pohl
Year: 1976
Rating: 3/5 stars

manplusMars. It’s one of science fiction’s most commonly used settings, and one that seems destined to be among our first stepping stones when we finally spread out from Earth to find new homes for ourselves. And so SF has countless stories of the red planet and human attempts to colonize it. In many such stories, the planet is made habitable through terraforming, changing the planet to suit humanity. In Man Plus, Pohl goes in the opposite direction, exploring the idea of changing humanity to suit Mars. The novel tells the story of Roger Torroway, the first successful product of a government program to do just that. The book details the process of his terrible transformation, and the consequences for Roger, both physical and psychological.

All this takes place against a background nearly identical to that in Pohl’s novel Jem. In other words: Cold War Earth, political strife, WWIII looming ever closer and seeming inevitable, the “free world” vs. communism, and a conviction that getting an off-world colony started is of the utmost urgency to save humanity. The political paranoia and the inevitability of annihilation seem exaggerated and unreal to me; but I was five years old when this novel was written, so what do I know? Maybe if I’d lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis, the book’s sense of Cold War dread and urgency would seem more realistic. But to me, this aspect of the novel seems forced.

Very little of the story actually takes place on Mars. Most of it occurs in the lab where Roger Torroway is slowly changed from a human being into something more — or perhaps less — than human. Through a series of operations, Torroway is turned into a cyborg, most of his natural flesh replaced with artificial parts. His eyes are faceted globes. His skin is plastic. He has mechanical muscles, and photoreceptor wings for gathering energy. His nervous system is altered to provide vastly improved senses. By the time it’s all done, there is very little of the original, organic Torroway left.

The book is suffused with a sense of disquiet and uneasiness about this project. While it is seen as a huge scientific achievement and a benefit for humanity, it is impossible not to also view it as a kind of abomination:

The screen showed a man.
He did not look like a man. […] He was an astronaut, a Democrat, a Methodist, a husband, a father, an amateur tympanist, a beautifully smooth ballroom dancer; but to the eye he was none of those things. To the eye he was a monster.

As Torroway goes through his transformation, it becomes harder and harder for him to connect with humanity, even with those he was closest to. This alienation from his own species, even in the cause of serving that species, is the central tragedy of the novel.

The book is interesting as far as it goes. It could have been far better though. For one thing, Pohl is not big on characterization. His characters are just barely developed enough to get the story told, and no more; I have a hard time really believing in them. Another thing the book lacks is an explanation of why this transformation is preferable to other possible solutions, such as simply bringing along the right equipment for ordinary humans to survive on Mars (building domed cities and so forth). A fairly average reading experience, overall.

2 responses to “Pluses and minuses to be found in Man Plus

  1. Years ago, I read Man Plus and totally enjoyed the novel. The way I understood the reasoning behind not “bringing along the right equipment” is that the equipment deteriorated so quickly that humans would be at risk if the life support equipment failed.

    Seems like I also remember there being another character, an autistic boy, who was considered the other possible candidate? I’ll have to re-read Man Plus.

    Thanks for sharing your review.

  2. Bit of a spoiler for people who haven’t read the book 😉

    Since they are being manipulated going into going to Mars in the first place, would in not be possible to influence the method as well? Whether it is the right way to go about it in the long run for the human race is not the main objective after all.

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