In the 1970s Frederik Pohl produced a number of highly regarded science fiction novels. Man Plus, which earned a Nebula Award for Best Novel in 1976, shows its age just a bit but I still found it very much worth reading.
In the near future, as seen from the 1970s, we may well be there now, the world is in a pretty bad shape. The sheer size of the human population the earth has to support has put a strain on the resources available. Hunger is a serious problem, as are dictatorial regimes. The US finds itself increasingly alone as a bastion of democracy and capitalism. When a conflict with the Chinese threatens to get out of control and result in thermo-nuclear warfare, the US president is desperate to direct the attention of the public elsewhere. Thus NASA’s program to create a man capable of surviving on the surface of Mars is born.
To make surviving the harsh conditions on Mars possible, the human body needs quite a few adaptations and improvements. In fact, by the time the surgeons and scientists are done, Roger Torraway, the man unfortunate enough to be bumped up to undergo the procedure after the unfortunate death of the first candidate, is barely recognizable as a human being. Torraway may look like a monster, but he’s just a human being put under enormous strain as the importance of the mission becomes clear. It is up to the people around him to make sure he arrives on Mars a sane man.
So what is this book about? Appearances, I guess. What’s most striking about the story is how people start treating Roger once he has begun the process of changing into man plus. Intellectually they know he’s human, but nobody can help seeing the monster. Interestingly enough Roger shares this response on some level, both when looking at his predecessor and when coming to terms with his own changed body (if it can be called such) and the way his altered senses perceive the world. Just about everybody feels somewhat uneasy about the creation of man plus and can’t quite put a finger on why.
The narrative structure of Man Plus is quite peculiar. We see all the characters from the third person, with passages narrated by the mysterious “we.” As in Gateway, Pohl ends the book with a punch. I won’t spoil it for you but take some time to consider who “we” might be along the way. It’s an interesting puzzle. A number of very big themes in science fiction are present but downplayed, which surprised me more than a little. To give you an example, very little of the novel actually takes place on Mars; the process of getting there is much more important to the story.
Pohl has a dark sense of humour. His portrayal of the US president in particular borders on the satirical, and that combined with the grotesque changes to Torraway’s physique keep the reader wondering how seriously all this should be taken. Over the course of the novel he asks the readers to examine some difficult questions. The last few chapters in particular leave the reader with something to think about. They also leave the door wide open for a sequel, Mars Plus, which was written in the 1990s. Man Plus is a puzzling book and a very enjoyable read.