Friday, February 13, 2015

Review of Man Plus by Frederik Pohl

Modernism’s hopes for mankind found expression in numerous ways, many of which fell directly into the wheelhouse of science fiction.  Asmimov, Heinlein, Clarke and others made a living presenting visions of a better life on Venus, robots to perform human labor, and spaceships to other planets—lebensraum abound.  But the cyborg has always been a fence-sitter.  Venus a jungle paradise, robots the perfect servant, and gleaming spaceships between the stars—these three shine at a much brighter intensity than the augmentation of humans with mechanical parts.  Mankind wary of such personal intrusion, literature about cyborgs has always been more equivocal in tone.  From Budry’s Who? to Dick’s “The Electric Ant”, the genre has seen a cautious approach to the combination of machine and body.  Adding a layer of subtle—and all the more biting for it—political satire, Frederik Pohl’s 1976 Man Plus is another strong example of the ambivalence.

Man Plus is set in a future wherein the world is in the grip of socialism.  Only North America remains capitalist, and statistics and trends indicate war is ever closer to deciding for how much longer.  Believing human habitation of Mars is the only way to avoid conflict, US President Fitz-James Deshatine sets up a secret American program to modify a man physically for open-air life on the red planet in preparation for American colonization.  Deshatine’s strong Texan demeanor driving the program as fast as it can go, Roger Torraway is quickly called into duty: to sacrifice himself for the common good.  Stripped of nearly everything that makes him corporeally human, he emerges a cyborg man.  Much to the emotional pain of his wife and friends, his bat-like eyes, plastic intestines, wings for dealing with balance in Martian gravity, reptilian skin to withstand cold, muscles replaced with a substance that requires no nourishment, and lungs a set of pumps to deal with the pressure differential make him more machine than man, only portions of his brain left untouched.  As the statistics continue to indicate war is ever closer, Torraway’s trip to Mars looms more important—but for whom?

If it wasn’t obvious from the plot description, Man Plus is a work of ripe satire.  Pohl’s pen incisively dismantling the American political system, particularly the presidency, he portrays it as a sham rooted in a system incapable of providing informed guidance.  Real leadership in fact a following of one’s own nose, the portrayal of Deshatine is incisively creepy from literary perspective (Pohl really does a superb job of capturing the nuances of political speech) and all too relevant from the perspective of Nixon, LBJ, Reagan, George W., and on and on.  Deshatine is full of bullshit, and Pohl nails every realistic word.

With the political system the villain, the victim of Man Plus is Roger Torraway.  The majority of the novel working through Torraway’s transition from government official to cyborg ready for Mars, the focus is on the existential quandaries he faces on the journey.  The satirical edge to the prose failing to produce full empathy with Torraway, its purpose instead lies in rendering a larger view to the system he is located within, personally, politically, and socially.  His relationship with his wife deteriorating, paranoia about events outsde the laboratory settling in, and sensory issues perceiving what is real and unreal taking effect, his is not an existence to envy.  Changes occurring beyond his control, much is stated implicitly.  Pohl perhaps the greatest satirist of his generation, the state of existence Torraway ultimately arrives at is what gives the novel its drive and meaning (at least apparently so: see below).  His final scene in the novel, for as subdued as the majority of science fiction fandom would make it out to be, is as wonderfully symbolic as anything the reader will find in the genre (as if the wings weren’t an indication).

But the final chapter is another story—literally.  It’s proverbial import like pissing in the punch, I have been racking my brains trying to figure out why Pohl decided to deconstruct his entire novel in a matter of pages.  Was it to provide some ‘grand revelatory experience’ for the reader to be amazed by and walk away satisfied?  Not likely; Pohl—and the novel—seem too savvy to resort to such tricks… Was it the ultimate bit of satire, an over the top bid at pulling the rug out from the modernist view of machine and man?  Possible, but not fully coherent with the prior storylines… Was it something an editor deemed was ‘necessary to produce a good novel’?  Again, seems unlikely; the novel was published post-New Wave, a time when the form was free to explore any themes and ideas it wanted without adhering to formulaic notions of old.  Thus, I rack my brains.  (If you, dear reader, have an idea as to why Pohl ended the novel the way he did, do leave a comment below as I’d love to hear a logical reason.)

In the end, Man Plus is a sophisticated piece of satire that uses the integration of machines into man for life on Mars to examine the personal, political, and social system which might give rise to funding such a project.  American leadership in the crosshairs, Pohl deftly cuts down to size the million dollar smile in the White House while probing the psyche of a man who undergoes drastic body modification.  Humanist at heart, the novel bears some resemblance to the work of Philip K. Dick, but for Pohl’s focus and sharp pen, remains something apart.  Man Plus is well written.  Pohl delicately balancing biting satire, mimesis, and a singular trope of science fiction (cyborgs), the novel strikes a chord that begs to be understood as both exaggerated political commentary and realism—the line between the two not so thick when larger than real-life characters such as presidents of old are up as targets.  The only thing uncertain is the ending…


  1. I remember our discussion about this on my review, but I can't decide which ending element confuses me the most. I think I've decided that the strange happily ever after ending is Pohl's post-divorce way of saying that man will always be misguidedly optimistic in areas of love. As for the strange overlord involvement, I think he might be saying that, no matter what, man will never be in control of his own destiny. Someone else is always pulling the strings.

    I dunno...

    1. For me the AI overlords are more confusing. Roger finding happiness on Mars can be chalked up to pure sarcasm, which fits the mood of the novel. But the AI overlords that follow, likewise, dunno...

  2. Ooh! Ooh! I've read this one!

    ...aaaand I remember being terribly satisfied by the ending, but I can't remember why. Maybe the AI overlords were some sort of "secret government string-pulling" satire that I liked? No idea.

    I tried the sequel, but the tone was entirely different.