Tag Archives: Mars

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.

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Sci-fi in music: The Dream Sequencer by Ayreon

Here’s the story: in the 22nd century humanity finally manages to wipe itself out in a massive world war…. Earth is dead, with not a single person left alive. A few colonists on Mars have enough supplies to last a few more years, but slowly they die off as well. This is the story of the last survivor, the last member of the human species anywhere. He was born on Mars and has never been on Earth, and now he too faces death soon. He chooses to end his days inside the Dream Sequencer, a sort of very advanced virtual reality machine. Inside it, one can relive earlier parts of one’s life, but what’s more, under the “pre-incarnation protocol” it can take you back to relive your past lives as well. So this last human being decides to get in the machine and go back, back, back… as far back as he possibly can before he dies (and trust me, he goes far). After the first song to set things up, each remaining song is about one of his previous lives.

Hokey as hell? Sure. But hey, there’s some good music here. This is, after all, Ayreon — the main project of the very talented multi-instrumentalist Arjen Lucassen (a name you may remember from my previous Star One review. And of course there’s a whole gang of guest vocalists: Damian Wilson (Threshold, Landmarq), Edward Reekers (Kayak), Floor Jansen (After Forever), Jacqueline Govaert (Krezip), Johan Edlund (Tiamat, Lucyfire), Lana Lane, Mark McCrite (Rocket Scientists), and Neal Morse (Spock’s Beard, Transatlantic). So… some nice progressive rock with lots of great vocals, and a SFnal-ish-type story to boot. Not too shabby.

My favorite songs are the first three, and I’ll give you some clips below. “The Dream Sequencer” sets up the story as our protagonist enters the machine. In “My House on Mars” he relives his days growing up as a Martian colonist. In “2084” he goes back to his immediately previous incarnation, who dies during the final war on Earth. This is my very favorite, featuring the lovely voice of Lana Lane (I’m a huge fan of the female voice in rock and metal, and some of Lane’s solo work too), as well as some quite mournful yet poetic lyrics:

My body lies motionless
Upon the kitchen floor
The Earth has died, the world’s at rest
2084

…..

We carried on down the road we chose
The path of nevermore
The journey ends, the book is closed
2084

This is part one of a 2-cd set called The Universal Migrator; but I didn’t care as much for part two, so I won’t delve into that.

For a tracklisting, audio samples, and more info, I’ll refer you to Lucassen’s Universal Migrator page on his website.

As promised…..

“The Dream Sequencer”

“My House on Mars”

“2084”