2015 Reading Journey: Man Plus

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Man Plus by Frederik Pohl (1977)

This was a substitution when I finally decided I couldn’t finish Dhalgren. I’ve read other work by Mr. Pohl (notably Gateway and Jem), and enjoyed it, so figured this was probably a safe bet and a good place to move after my other 1970s experience this year. Also, Man Plus was nominated for the Hugo and won the Nebula in 1977. I made this pick before I’d fully decided on the ongoing award-winning novel quest that starts next year. Published in 1977, this likely would have fallen into 2017’s reading journey, close enough to now that I’m not going to read it again.

Early on, Man Plus is more than a little bit info-dumpy. We get brief bits of history on how the human race perceived Mars, a little bit of planetology on what that world is really like (to the state of understanding in the mid-1970s), and even a little bit of orbital mechanics. But at least this all came after the introduction of the main character, the current state of earth, both politically and economically, and the idea that, whatever year this happens to be, crewed solar system exploration has gone far beyond the moon.

International politics, human failures, and human stupidity mark the end of the setup portion of the story, which actually takes just about exactly one quarter of the book. I think a lot of this would be chopped if published today, or heavily rewritten so that there are more actual events and more foreshadowing that doesn’t just involve chapter titles, things that aren’t just information you need to understand the world you’re reading in.

But when the setup is over and our main character is now (spoiler alert) the one going to Mars with his body heavily modified, there’s a whirlwind of scientific and engineering activity, and we don’t get to experience it with him. Rather, we watch it done to him, still with a taste of national and international politics in the background.

Worth noting is that this isn’t a novel about the colonization or even exploration of Mars. This is a novel about what happens when you reengineer a human being on the fly to survive unaided in an environment completely hostile to the one they evolved for, never mind that the world is hostile enough in its own way with the cold war still in heavy swing and tension escalating almost moment to moment. The novel lives and breathes in the reactions of Roger Torraway to what’s being done to him and the reactions of the people around him as it happens. Roger seems odd as an astronaut, almost passive through a lot of the things that happen to him from the outside, but seething about some things on the inside. And this only gets more intense as his mind adapts to the new body he’s wearing.

The bulk of the story is told with Roger as the POV, but we get brief moments with other people as well, plus some odd point of view confusion beginning in Chapter 7. Throughout the narrative after that, sometimes we get a few sentences or paragraphs in the first person plural (“we”) to interrupt the standard third person. I found confusing to begin with and irritating after a while. At the end of the book, the “we” turns out to be “machine intelligence” – the network computers have been guiding things all the way along, having figured out that a human nuclear war will take them out as well. And it’s the computers who have manipulated data and analysis in order to create the Man Plus project to ensure the survival of their own species and, not quite incidentally, the human species as well. Unfortunately, this turns the last few pages of the book into an info dump as the computers explain themselves, always using the collective “we”.

Almost lost in that blunt realization is the one that comes just before, the first real vision of the internet that we might recognize: “All major computers are cross-linked to some extent.” Only for us, it’s closer to all computers. That crosslinking is also what appears to allow them a collective mind and the ability to act together, even if there are strong hints that they have their own evolved intelligence separately.

And the book ends on a question, as if Mr. Pohl may have had a sequel in mind. (He did, but Mars Plus didn’t publish until 1994.)

Overall rating: 3 stars. Conceptually, this is a very interesting book, and I did enjoy it, but overall, it doesn’t quite work for me. Looking back over the story, I think my problem is at a fundamental level, with the very premise that it rests on: in order to even go to Mars and have a look around, we have to rebuild the astronaut from the ground up. Especially considering the rest of the team who goes does the normal space suit thing. There’s just one member, the main character, who has to be built to survive Mars unaided. I don’t quite buy into it, but it’s still a good story.

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