Monday 15 September 2014

Man Plus - Frederik Pohl (1976)

Frederik Pohl is a science fiction great who published work between 1937 and 2011 before he passed away in 2013. Pohl won multiple awards, including the Nebula Award for Man Plus. He followed that up with a Hugo and a Nebula in 1977 for Gateway. Man Plus features a brilliant premise in which a human, Roger Torraway, is biologically engineered to live on Mars unaided by a suit or breathing equipment. Such a premise enabled Pohl to explore the outer limits of technology and the future of space travel. Although we are no where near developing cyborgs, humanity is beginning to take significant steps in space and there is a real sense of urgency, with the Mars One project and the likes of Steven Hawking warning that humans must become a multi-planet species in order to avoid extinction.

Although Pohl is clever enough not to be specific, Man Plus is set in what appears to be an early twenty first century future. Things are typically going badly for humanity, although forays into space have become common enough for there to have been a number of manned missions to Mars. Tensions are high between the Earth’s most powerful countries - America and China, and natural resources have become scarce. Computer modeling indicates that the extinction of humanity is probable and this spurs America to develop the Man Plus program that will enable humans to live on Mars. After the death of the first “monster” Roger Torraway becomes the cyborg savior of humanity (now there’s a headline I’d love to see...).

Ostensibly Man Plus is about the colonization of Mars, but perhaps the most significant theme is humanity’s relationship with technology. Cyborgs are a common science fiction trope, but Pohl’s treatment is uniquely visceral. Torraway is an everyman astronaut whose fallible humanity makes his transformation into a monstrous cyborg profoundly affecting. The horror of what the surgeons do to his body is palpable because Pohl succeeds in making a fairly improbable near future biotechnology believable. Torraway effectively becomes a Martian demon with superhuman strength and augmented senses. The sequences in which he is testing his new found senses are almost psychedelic in nature; it would have thoroughly entertained all those mid seventies acid-heads.

The great strength of Man Plus is the portrayal of a man who no longer recognizes himself as human, yet is still governed by human psychology. There is a brilliant sequence in which Torraway, desperate to see his wife, escapes the desert complex he’s sequestered in and appears in the bedroom of his home. The interaction between Dorrie and Torraway perfectly encapsulates the feeling of the ‘uncanny valley’ not that long after the concept was invented. Pohl also manipulates the reader into both enjoying the spectacle of Torraway as cyborg monster and engaging emotionally with the tragedy of his lost humanity.

Pohl’s writing style is now perhaps a touch old fashioned and the fact that the story is told in hindsight means that some narrative tension is sacrificed. To Pohl’s credit the hard science of travelling and surviving on Mars in Man Plus is believable. When the expedition finally makes it to Mars what transpires is exciting and intriguing. As with many of the great science fiction novels there is a twist. Perhaps I’ve read a few too many as I guessed what was happening about two thirds of the way through, but it didn’t spoil my enjoyment in the end. There is a 1994 sequel called Mar’s Plus for those curious as to what happened next; isn’t that the essence of science fiction, the question of what happens next? Although improbable in some aspects, Man Plus captures the sense of what it must be like to be on the cutting edge of what is scientifically possible; something that the participants of the Mars One project must be familiar with. They may not be about to be transformed into cyborg Martian freaks, but if they succeed it will transform humanity in ways that perhaps we have yet to imagine.

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