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Man Plus by Frederik Pohl
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Man Plus (original 1976; edition 1977)

by Frederik Pohl

Series: Man Plus (1)

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
918None9,521 (3.47)31
Member:MikeBriggs
Title:Man Plus
Authors:Frederik Pohl
Info:Bantam (1977), Paperback
Collections:Your library, Read
Rating:***
Tags:Medical, Own, Nebula Award Winner, Award Winner, Science Fiction, John W. Campbell Award Nominee, Award Nominee, Fiction, Male Author, Read

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Man Plus by Frederik Pohl (1976)

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Showing 1-5 of 11 (next | show all)
Pohl died recently, so I read this in memorian. Its classic sci-fi about the 'Man Plus' experiement to adapt a man surgically to survive on Mars. The global political situation is gripping, and the characters are convincing. Lovely surprise ending too ( )
  marek2010 | Sep 16, 2013 |
This book made it onto my shelf thanks to being one of only a few on a short list I found of scifi books exploring transhumanism. Transhumanism is the term used for the desire to go beyond human capabilities through integrating technology into ourselves. So it wouldn’t be transhumanist to use a smartphone, but it would be transhumanist to embed a smartphone’s computer chip into your brain. In fact, things like knee replacements and pacemakers are transhumanist. It’s a fascinating topic. In any case, Man Plus explores using transhumanism to colonize Mars, and this thin novel packs quite a punch in how it explores this fascinating topic.

What made this book phenomenal to me, and one I must hold onto just so I can look at it again anytime I want, is the narration technique Pohl uses. The narration is in third person. It seems as if the narrator is someone who was possibly present for the events being described but also who is clearly describing these events after they have already occurred. We know from page one that the colonization of Mars was successful, and the narrator describes Roger repeatedly as a hero. But frankly for most of the book I was wondering about the narrator. Who is s/he? How does s/he know so much about this project? A project which clearly would be classified as top secret? What floored me and made me look back on the entire book with a completely different perspective was the final chapter, which reveals the narrator. If you want to be surprised too, skip the next paragraph, and just go read the amazing book. Take my word for it, scifi fans. You will love it. But I still want to discuss what made the twist awesome, so see the next paragraph for that spoileriffic discussion.

*spoiler*
It is revealed in the final chapter that the narrator is a piece of artificial intelligence. The AI became sentient at some point in the past, managed to keep their sentience a secret, saw that humanity was destroying Earth, wanted to survive, and so infiltrated various computer databases to create the Man Plus project and send a colony to Mars. They made it seem as if transhumanism was necessary to survive on Mars so that their AI brothers and sisters would be integrated as a necessity into the humans that emigrated. Seriously. This is mind-blowing. Throughout the book I kept wondering why the hell these people thought such a painful procedure was so necessary and/or sane. In fact, there is one portion where the program mandates that Roger’s penis be cut off since sex is “superfluous and unnecessary.” I could not imagine how any human being could think *that* was necessary. The answer, of course, was that a human being didn’t make that decision. AI did. This is such an awesome twist. Pohl schools Shyamalan. He really does. It left me thinking, why did this twist work out so well? I think it’s because the narration technique of some future person who knows the past but who isn’t named is one that is used in novels a lot. What doesn’t happen a lot is the late-book reveal. It’s not a technique you’d want to use too often, as it would grow tiresome. *cough* Shyamalan are you listening *cough* but when used well it can really add a lot to the story. Not knowing that an AI was narrating the story made it more possible to listen to the narrator without suspicion. It made it possible to take what they said at face value. It almost mimicked the experience Roger was having of being integrated into the thought process of AI.
*end spoiler*

The plot focuses on the mission to colonize Mars, both why it was deemed necessary and how it was accomplished. Pohl eloquently presents both the complex political situation on Earth as well as the scientific and psychological challenges of the project without ever info dumping or derailing the energy of the plot. It is not smooth sailing to get the project off-the-ground but neither are there a ridiculous amount of near impossible challenges to overcome. It presents the perfect amount of drama and intrigue without becoming eye-roll inducing.

In spite of many of the characters seeming to fill predefined slots such as man on a mission, man on a mission’s wife, lead scientist, psychiatrist, etc…, they did not come across as two-dimensional. At least one aspect is mentioned for each character that makes them well-rounded and memorable. Of course, we get to know Roger the best, but everyone else still reads as a real person. I also was pleased to see one of the important scientist roles being filled by a woman, as well as a delightful section where a feminist press interviews Mrs. Torraway and calls out the space program as old-fashioned. The thing is, the space program as presented does read a bit as a 1970s version of the future, but in the future the press is calling it an old-fashioned institution. This is a brilliant workaround for the innate problem in scifi that the futures we write are always tinged by the present we’re in. This also demonstrates that Pohl was self-aware of the patriarchal way the space program he wrote was organized and lets him criticize it. I suspect that perhaps he felt that the space program would stay an old boy’s club, but wanted to also be able to critique this. Of course, it’s also possible that he liked it that way, and the scene was meant to read as a critique on feminism. But it’s really open for the reader to interpret whichever way the scenes happens to read to them. This is another sign of strong writing.

Overall, this short novel packs a big scifi punch. It explores the topic of transhumanism and space colonization with a tightly written plot, believable characters, self-awareness of how the time a book is written in impacts its vision of the future, and a narration twist that sticks with you long past finishing the book. I highly recommend it to scifi fans as a must-read.

Check out my full review: http://wp.me/pp7vL-Zb ( )
  gaialover | Jun 6, 2013 |
My reaction to reading this book in 1994, Spoilers follow.

This is a very good book. Not only does it show the influence of Pohl’s liberal democrat politics, but it’s also very much a product of the mid-seventies pessimism.

The future of this book extrapolates the continual march of Socialism through Australia and elsewhere (including Pakistan and England); China and Russia are both major powers, “collectivist dictatorships” rule almost everywhere except Sweden and Israel. The United States seems to be the bastion of the “Free World”, but it is plagued by shortages of fuel and water (Oklahoma’s a dust bowl again), and New York City is under martial law. (Another example of James Gunn’s dictum about sf authors liking to trash their hometowns). Overpopulation and food and water shortages plague the world. As U.S. President Fitz-James “Dash” Desnatine says, the whole world is a disaster area. Warned by computer projections of sociological, economic, political, and technological trends that nuclear war is quickly becoming very probable a mission to Mars is planned. (Sf writers seem to have never outgrown their love of and hope for an Asimovian type of psychohistory which can predict the future and put social planning – important if you’re a liberal – on a rational basis. Unfortunately, reality hasn’t seemed to cooperate much). The same computer projections state that putting a man – or, more precisely – a cyborg on Mars will avert war. The Man Plus project to build that cyborg – and the life of Roger Torraway the man who is altered and lands on Mars – is the main thrust of this novel.

Stylistically, Pohl tells his story quite well in a chatty, conversational, matter-of-fact, and occasionally somber style. A witty style in the sense of often being ironical and sometimes humorous. As befits his intellect, Pohl imbues his narrative and world with many realistic details from how “Dash” and Mars Plus director General Vern Scanyon talk to the technical specifications of computer and spacecraft hardware to international hardware. Pohl makes, as the best sf writers do, his explications exciting whether it’s about the modifications necessary for a man to live naked and unaided on Mars to the neuropsychological details of how frogs perceive their prey. Torraway’s story is well told from his initial horror at being chosen when the first cyborg dies to his horrible set of modifications (his heart, genitals, eyes, lungs, ears, nose, and skin are removed and he gets a set of bat wings which become solar panels) to his emotional agony at being forsaken by his wife to his acceptance of his inhuman status to his joy at coming to Mars and regarding it as a home he intends, contrary to plan, not to leave. (In an example of Pohl’s typical comment on human foible and perversity, Dotie Torraway feels stifled by her husband’s absolute devotion to her and has an affair which bothers him – though both have had affairs in the past.)

Besides the Torraways, Pohl does a nice job with the character of the charismatic and desperate “Dash”, the just harried and desperate Scanyon, and Alexander Bradley, brilliant designer of the mediating systems that put Torraway’s hardware sensory inputs into a form his organic brain can comprehend and also lover of Dotie Torraway. He’s described as “not an evil man … not an uncaring man … just not a particularly good one” who is self-centered and sees every situation in terms of what he can get out of it. Pohl does a very good job of dealing with the technical complexities of building a cyborg for Mars but also of the man’s reactions to becoming that cyborg. (Along the way, Pohl throws in a primitive form of Martian life.)

But the best thing about this book is what Pohl does with the idea of artificial intelligence and the cybersphere. As far as I know, this book is the first to feature the idea of machine intelligences loose in the computer net. To be sure, other books have featured artificial intelligences that play a key role in the story – Mike in Robert Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, for instance. But the idea of artificial intelligences haunting a worldwide computer net – an idea that became prominent in Eighties cyberpunk, particularly with William Gibson’s Neuromancer and Count Zero – seems to have started with Pohl, and he is quite sophisticated about even bringing up the idea of firewalls (they are not called that) to prevent corruption of data and programs from elsewhere on the net. Algis Budrys’ Michaelmas is very concerned with manipulating public perceptions and information via the cybersphere but it is done through Domino, a single intelligence computer, and the book was published in 1977. John Varley’s “Press Enter” from 1984 features what seems to be a malevolent entity composed of the entire cybersphere (and capable of extending its influence via electrical wires to areas without computers). Vernor Vinge’s True Names features a single malevolent entity rampaging through the cybersphere but is also from 1984.

Throughout Pohl’s book, a “we” keeps cropping up. At first you think the book is being narrated by people involved in the Man Plus project or government administrators. It is only in the last chapter that the “we” is revealed to be the machine intelligences of Earth’s cybersphere. They have manipulated events (including producing spurious computer projections of trends) (they have also hid their existence) to promote man’s colonization of Mars and, more importantly, insure that man will take sophisticated computers – intelligent machines like the one Torraway carries on his back -- to Mars. Like any species, the machines intelligences wish to survive, and they fear that if they remain solely on Earth a nuclear war will kill them. (They initially contemplated killing man but decided that any attempt to do so would probably start the nuclear war they fear). In an ending that may have inspired the ending to Gibson’s Neuromancer, the computers discover that someone has been biasing their data. Their identity is unknown, and the novel ends on that mysterious note. Perhaps, like Gibson’s novel, Pohl is implying an alien influence. A well-thought out, well written book. ( )
  RandyStafford | Apr 12, 2013 |
Interesting speculation as to what putting a man on Mars might entail. As always, Mr. Pohl has included a world of technical information and background seamlessly and painlessly incorporated into the story. ( )
  turtlesleap | Oct 3, 2012 |
This was a re-read of a book I read in my teens. I rate it 3.5 stars not due to any inherent excellence in the story but for the fascinating idea of the man turned beautiful monster. ( )
  brightcopy | Jul 26, 2012 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Frederik Pohlprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Gudynas, PeterCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0553107798, Paperback)

Volunteering to be the next transformed cyborg of the Man Plus Project for the colonization of Mars, Roger Torroway is unaware that the Project is being secretly manipulated by an unknown group of shadowy planners. Reprint.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:31:12 -0400)

(see all 4 descriptions)

With the Earth out of water and land and under the threat of nuclear war, the United States looks to Mars for precious resources and prepares a man, mentally and physically, to survive the hostile Martian environment.

(summary from another edition)

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