Man Plus

by Frederik Pohl

Cover image

Series: Mars #1
Publisher: Bantam
Copyright: August 1976
Printing: September 1977
ISBN: 0-553-10779-8
Format: Mass market
Pages: 246

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Roger Torraway is one of the backups for the Man Plus project, which is attempting to create a cyborg capable of living on the surface of Mars. Politics on Earth are falling apart after Communist takeovers of nearly every government outside of North America (heh), but the polls show that people are very interested in seeing humans live on Mars and that successful completion of such a program will do much to calm international politics. That makes this project the most important project in the world, and when the current modified human dies of a stroke after a malfunction in his rebuilt sensory processing, Roger becomes the center of a lot of high-level attention. It doesn't help that his personal life has some serious problems.

This is an odd book. For one thing, it's written in the first person plural, a very unusual choice of narrative voice. It's also written in a documentary fashion, following several characters and occasionally digressing into history lessons or discussions of technology. Roughly a third of the book approaches a non-fiction tone, and even when it studies character interactions, the narrator is very distant and clinical about what's happening. The motivations of the government in this project also make no sense for most of the book (Pohl does have a good explanation here, but you have to wait for it). It's a book that distances the reader, encourages an intellectual reading, and treats its characters a bit like lab rats. When one realizes what Pohl's doing (which for me was about three-quarters of the way through), it's a neat trick, but it means Man Plus doesn't read like a normal novel.

This is not a stellar entry from a hard SF perspective, although it wins some points for being an early post-Mariner Mars colonization story. The cyborgs of the Man Plus project have nearly their entire body replaced, including all their limbs, which for a story that's supposedly set only twenty or thirty years in the future from when it was written (the cyborg process is the only high technology evident) is a bit hard to swallow. The technology feels like a plot device used to show the reader how hostile Mars is more than a believable extrapolation. The details of human physiology and the environment on Mars aren't bad, if a bit simplified, but this certainly isn't Kim Stanley Robinson. (In contrast, Man Plus's extrapolation of world politics is humorously bad, but given when it was written I can give Pohl a pass there.)

Characterization fares better. What I've read of Pohl so far is unusually focused on (and unusually realistic about) human psychology, and Man Plus is no exception. Much of the book deals with Roger's emotional state, his relationship with his wife, and how he adapts to becoming a cyborg. Towards the middle of the book, he gets a supplementary computer that filters his perceptions and lets his emotions affect what he sees, which Pohl uses to bring his mental state into the story even more. Character interactions and emotions are realistically messy without clear conclusions or dramatic psychological shifts. Roger never suddenly ends up happy, and characters don't change their basic nature, only control it when the stakes are high enough. All of the characters are flawed in one way or another (well, with the possible exception of Sulie), but none of them are clear villains. Characters grow past their problems rather than simply solving them. Applied psychology is a bit too objective and efficient still, but overall I liked how Pohl handled this.

The main flaw I found in the book was that it's not particularly exciting. It's intellectually interesting, I was curious about what would happen to the characters next, and it's well-written and well-paced. But the emotional distance of the narrator, the high-altitude view of the Man Plus project one receives, and the lack of characters with whom I could strongly identify (or, for the most part, like) kept the appreciation at an intellectual level. Combined with politics that are, for eventually justified story reasons, eye-rollingly unlikely, this distance left me without any emotional attachment to the story. I finished the book, thought "huh, neat perspective shift," and realized I'll probably forget most of it. (Roger in his fully modified form on Mars is a striking mental image, though.)

Followed some years later by Mars Plus, co-written with Thomas T. Thomas, but Man Plus stands well on its own.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2007-01-04

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21