Man Plus by Pohl, Frederik, 1976

Man Plus by Pohl, Frederik - Book cover from Amazon.co.uk

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I've stated before that Frederick Pohl is one of the most underrated authors of SF. He has a very impressive and frequently awarded body of work, and he is one of the few authors who consistently produced books that had all the elements of hard SF as well as the character and atmosphere elements of so-called soft SF. That is actually what I really love about him. He never fails to hit on all cylinders in that way. It's like watching High Fidelity with your wife. That movie had lots of romance and lots of angst, and plenty of lists of great albums and songs. Its like it was made for everyone. And despite that fact that the plot is extraordinary and the characters are as round as a ball, up until the very end it delivers nothing unexpected. Nothing that it didn't promise you in the beginning, so I'm giving it three out of five stars.

Man Plus is the story of a secret U.S. project to surgically alter a human being so that he may live without mechanical support of any kind in the natural environment of Mars. The program is an overblown attempt to charm the rest of the world and U.S. separatists, all of whom seem interested in open war. Roger Torraway is the subject of the program, after the first subject dies of unexpected side effects of the changes made to his body that are not reflected in his mind. Pohl did a fantastic job of detailing Torraway's transmutation into a bat-winged, bug-eyed monster (a neat spin on the BEM, actually) with artificial limbs, a computer interface, no need to breathe, and little need to eat. Due to errors made with his predecessor NASA engineered completely new sensory organs, and puts in a computer interface to help him deal with new types of stimuli. Mostly because of this, but also because of his physical differences from humanity, Torraway begins to experience the world and Mars in entirely new ways. And as Torraway gets used to his new body and its truly incredible potential, he starts to drift away from his own identification with the human race. The plot is very Kierkegaardian and Nietzschian, as Torraway acknowledges his differences from humanity, and the possibility of return to his original form, then chooses to make his own future for himself in an environment that he is uniquely suited to.

As usual, Pohl misses nothing in the telling of this story. The characters are all well fleshed out and their motivations are unique and believable. The story is set on a very interesting pre-WWW III Earth and a barren Mars, and the book is tightly plotted and wrapped up well in the end. Pohl's cynicism and sarcasm are toned down quite a bit in this novel from Gateway (both were published in the same year, 1976) though he does speak in that voice some. In this book though his humor is more of the gallows variety.

Clearly the man theme has to do with the meaning of being a human being. The absurdity of it all is that a radically transformed "human" was supposed to be the thing that drew the rest of us together. Torraway was supposed to be his generation's Apollo Program. But the program went too far, and by the time they were done, there was very little "human" left. Consider this: At one point the transformation team removed Torraway's entire reproductive system as "unnecessary equipment." As soon as Torraway realized that they had done this to him, he began losing his grip on his humanity. How does one ever return from something like that?

Pohl wrote a sequel with the unfortunately named Thomas T. Thomas, which I have never read before, and cannot comment on. But this book I think is an absolute masterpiece of SF, and deserves to be read at least once.

Copyright 2007, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 4 star(s)

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