Friday, 5 October 2012

‘Man Plus’ – Frederick Pohl (Gollancz)

This read has been a long time coming and by ‘a long time’ I do mean years. I first saw ‘Man Plus’ when the ‘SF Masterworks’ series originally kicked off (about twelve years ago I think) and the blurb and cover caught my eye even then. I never picked it up though, for a whole number of reasons including 'no money’ and ‘I actually prefer reading Fantasy over Science Fiction, I think I’ll check out the Fantasy Masterworks series instead’.
That pretty much remained the case up until just recently when I found myself reading more ‘SF Masterworks’ (with still more waiting to be read on my shelves) and thought, ‘what was the book that had a picture of a man with bug eyes and wings on the cover?’ Readers of the blog will already know that I found a copy of ‘Man Plus’ in Forbidden Planet and took it away with me for a week in Majorca. The bottom line is that I thought it was superb but I should give you a little more detail than that so here goes…

According to computer predictions, colonisation of Mars is mankind’s only hope of avoiding extinction; the Man Plus Programme is an exercise in biological engineering that will pave the way to humankind being able to live on the Red Planet.
Ill luck made Roger Torroway the test subject for the Man Plus Programme but everything else that was done to him was deliberately designed to give him the best chance of survival on Mars. Underneath that monstrous exterior though, Torroway still carries an all too human capacity for suffering and this could mean the difference between life and death for more than one species… 

To be honest, I had no idea what to expect when I picked up ‘Man Plus’ and started reading. It really was a question of the blurb and cover looked intriguing so I finally decided to act on it and give the book a go. I certainly never expected to be gripped in the way that I was, doing my utmost to make every second of reading time count so I could enjoy the book for that little bit longer. Surprise read of the year? Quite likely. My copy of ‘The Space Merchants’ has just been moved up the pile on the strength of this read.

Out of all the planets you’re ever likely to come across in science fiction, it has always been Mars that has drawn readers in. Whether it’s a fear of alien invasion or the pioneering urge to conquer its surface, the concept of Mars has grown to monstrous proportions and it’s interesting that Pohl has chosen to tackle this concept with a monster of his own. Let’s face it, he didn’t have to. While the science of Torroway’s transformation is plausible enough (both the reasons and the results) I’ll bet he could have come up with a solution that didn’t involve Torroway being transformed to the extent that he is. There is an element of ‘reclaiming Mars’ (or not letting it overawe us) here that softens the hard science and makes things a little more personal. If I’m being completely honest it also makes things that much more accessible for the likes of me.

The actual conquest of Mars is almost a side note to the proceedings although there is the hint of a third party being involved which ends things on a very interesting note. ‘Man Plus’ is more about getting Torroway to Mars and how his humanity is forced into conflict with the changes being made to his external appearance. It all makes for compulsive reading as you can’t help but ask yourself how you would react in the same situation. Once you start doing this you can’t help but root for Torroway to come through each of his trials, especially the ‘tiny little operation’ that almost kills him. It’s interesting to note the forces at play in these moments, one entirely unaware of the other but both working to make sure that Torroway has the best possible chance of success. As a character, Torroway is pretty bland to begin with and Pohl uses this fa├žade to great affect, cracking it open again and again to get those primal responses.

And Torroway really does have a lot to face up to. Not just the countless operations that he has to go through either (all rendered dispassionately, a move which brings home the full impact of these). There is also the fact that his gradual transformation is estranging him from a wife that is already having an affair with the man working on Torroway’s new eyes. The new eyes makes for an interesting side plot in itself (how can Torroway see the truth if someone else has determined what he sees and doesn’t see?) but the President’s intervention, as well as the unseen narrator, goes to show just how important Torroway and his mission are.

‘…do you know what the history books are going to say about me? ‘Fitz-James Deshatine, 1943-2026, forty-second President of the United States. During his administration the human race established its first self-sustaining colony on another planet’. That’s what I’ll get Roger, if I get that much – and you’re the only one who can give it to me.’

‘Man Plus’ is a high stakes tale of science with a human heart beating underneath an exterior that is anything but. It’s a lot more than that though as our ‘unseen narrator’ proves. No matter where Torroway goes it sees his every move and will do whatever it can to help; it is the reason the ‘Man Plus’ Programme was created in the first place and it has its own ulterior motives for lending assistance.
Pohl drops plenty of hints as to the identity of the narrator but they are deliberately lost in what is made of Torroway as his trip to Mars grows ever closer. If you’re like me, you won’t find the revelation to be that much of a surprise but what is really clever is how Pohl keeps it under wraps for an entire book. Great stuff, a ‘story within a story’ that adds to the urgency of the overall plot.

I’m very glad that I finally gave ‘Man Plus’ a go and would say that if you’re thinking about picking it up, don’t wait for as long as I did. I’d definitely say that it is a Masterwork with its superbly executed concept matched up with tight plotting and a lead character whom you will empathise with.

Ten out of Ten


Blitzspear said...

only pohl book I've read is gateway. picked it up in a library sale cuz i liked the cover and it turned out to be one of the best books I've ever read. couldn't say why I've never picked up another of his books but I'll endeavor to find some now im reminded of gateway.

big_cheddars said...

Gateway was probably the most emotional and heart-breaking story I've read, and it's one of those books where the ending leaves you with a bitter taste in your mouth, but you know it couldn't have gone another way. Really looking forward to reading Man Plus after this review.