Friday, 9 June 2017

Man Plus by Frederik Pohl

Timing is everything. Not long ago, I posted a book review about Theodore Sturgeon's More Than Human, and was talking about 1970s-era consideration of what human beings are, and here we have Man Plus as a handy juxtaposition. And it comes to quite a different conclusion, thus ending my attempt to put too neat a chronological classification on this debate. Look at the two broad categories would be an interesting topic for discussion, and I may make a note of it in my list of themes for future science fiction/fantasy bookclub meetings.

Still, there is an undeniable timebound element to this book, even if it's not a particular theme on the evolution of humanity. Published in the 1970s, this particular book shares with others the same basic pessimism that the world may eventually, even is hugely likely to, destroy itself in war between capitalist countries and communist ones. (Or, as it virtually always happens, between the U.S., where these books are almost inevitably set, and either Russia or China. Here, it's China.)

Despite any best efforts, the human race may indeed be doomed, except for one way out - computer simulations show that putting humans on Mars would give a chance of not dissolving the world in nuclear fire. Except creating a self-sustaining colony with normal human bodies seems more than a little difficult - so Pohl's characters come up with the idea that they'll create a human being perfectly suited to living on Mars, able to adapt to the gravity, low atmosphere, lack of oxygen and regular supplies of food. They'll create what is honestly a cyborg, except I think the book rejects that term midway through - the man they create is a man, despite his many machine parts.

(And I realize I said human being initially, but it would be as accurate to say "man," as there wasn't any doubt they'd be picking from NASA astronauts, even though there are multiple women who are scientists and doctors peopling the secondary characters. Despite the fact that the guy who gets sent's wife falls very much in the mold of wife who married for the wrong reasons and is fooling around on the side. Although it also seems that monogamy might not have been the norm for most of their marriage, but it becomes a bigger deal when Roger loses his penis in the midst of being turned into a Mars-dwelling part-machine with a backpack computer that mediates all his sensory impressions, because to do otherwise would blow out his brain.)

I am just going to marvel at that sentence for a while.

So, Pohl gets, let's say, a B+ for female characters given the time period, because there are more than three named female characters, and Dorrie the wife aside, they're pretty interesting.

This book is mostly about the lead-up to the mission to Mars, although we do get to see some time there as well. But there's another level that I've not even really hinted it, which Pohl sprinkles lightly through the book - the question of who is really pulling the strings. The obvious answer was the answer it ended up being, but then he throws in a neat little question to complicate it, and that alone probably makes me like this book more than I would otherwise. This is all about the questions, and if it assumes that humans are humans even without most of their meat, that's an interesting answer, and one I'd love to delve into further.

(Yes, I'm a little obsessed with my themed reading in my SF/F book clubs. But it's great fun to take an in-depth look at a topic!)

Man Plus shows its age, but it was entertaining. I can't say I loved it as much as I did Gateway, but I certainly liked it more than that dreadful piece of dreck Pohl wrote with Arthur C. Clarke that I reviewed in the last year.

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