The next stop on our Going to Mars, Word-by-Word tour is the Nebula award-winning novel, Man Plus by Fredrik Pohl, published in 1976. By the mid-seventies, Pohl had been writing and publishing stories for almost 40 years. The writing reflects that. Smoothly written, it is a quick and entertaining read.
In reality the early 1970’s were a time of disco dances like the hustle, world wide unrest and fear of terrorist bombings, hijackings, kidnappings, and assassinations. There were economic worries and hardships and a huge energy crisis. The United States, USSR, and France were doing nuclear tests on their own soil. Space Mountain opened at Disneyland and Jaws by Steven Spielberg had its premier. The television show The Bionic Man was popular. Apollo 18 and Soyuz 19 rendezvoused in space. And the Viking 2 Mars probe was launched.
Man Plus takes place in the not-too-distant future when the overpopulated earth is on the brink a world war battling over the few remaining natural resources on the planet. The fate of humanity rests on the people and the project inside a building in Tonka, Oklahoma.
WHAT IT’S ABOUT
When former astronaut Col. Roger Torraway volunteered to be the understudy for astronaut Willy Hartnett, Roger never thought he’d actually be called upon. After Willy’s death, the President of the United States urged the team at the project to meet their deadline because computer projections predicted the world would soon be at war. Roger was mankind’s last hope. He was to become Man Plus, a cyborg engineered to survive and thrive in the harsh conditions on Mars.
Heavily sedated, Roger did not know when his nervous system, his eyes, lungs, heart, ears, nose, and skin were replaced or supplemented. To solve the power problem, they gave him wings of solar panels. When the surgeries were finally over, Roger had to learn to use his new senses. His large, multifaceted eyes could distinguish everything from infrared to UV light. With his bat-like ears, he could hear all of life’s most minute sounds and easily heard conversations in the corridors outside his pressurized room. Roger also had to come to terms with who he was, was he still human? Would his wife still love him? Was his wife having an affair with his best friend, Brad, who was also the scientist responsible for much of Roger’s new body?
The remaining two-thirds of the book is about Roger adapting to his new, alien self, to the planet Mars, and finding a way to be human despite everything. The computers now predict humanity will survive on Mars and are pleased they have been successful in their mission to save the humans as well as themselves.
The story is told from a kind of limited omniscient viewpoint with sentient computers as the ‘surprise’ narrator. The reader of today is not surprised. And on reflection, there are plot holes, inconsistencies, and questionable motivations throughout the story. So yes, the story has some flaws. But it was a story that captured many readers imaginations at the time it was first published. And, it may not be as far-fetched as it seems at first glance. Do you remember these stories that made the news?
HOW THE RED PLANET IS PORTRAYED
The descriptions of Mars in Man Plus are minimal, but not inaccurate visually. Various metals and elements mentioned in the novel I’m unable to recognize as correct or incorrect. The human characters erect tents for shelter and begin performing scientific studies and tests one would expect the first persons on Mars to do.
Roger’s reaction to being on Mars is delightful. “To Roger, looking out on the bright, jewel-like colors of the planet he was meant to live on, it was a fairyland, beautiful and inviting.” And a little later, “First he walked, then trotted, then he began to run. If he had sped through the streets of Tonka, here he was a blur. He laughed out loud.” He is so eager to explore Mars that he gets himself into trouble with his power supply. This is what I read books about Mars for, that sense of wonder and excitement.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Born in 1919, Frederik George Pohl, Jr. has been a high school drop-out, an American soldier (during WWII), and has had nearly every possible role in science fiction. He has been a fan, poet, critic, literary agent, teacher, book and magazine editor, and a writer. “Elegy to a Dead Planet” was his first published story and appeared in Amazing Stories in 1937. His volume of writing is phenomenal and he has won every major science fiction award and then some.
When asked about his process, Pohl has had this to say, “People ask me how I do research for my science fiction. The answer is, I never do any research. I just enjoy reading the stuff, and some of it sticks in my mind and fits into the stories. Maybe that’s the best way to do it.” from Locus Online
Between the duration of his career and the breadth of his career, there is no way to do him justice in this post. Please visit the resources listed below. Be sure to visit his blog, The Way The Future Blogs, in which he discusses his travels (all over the world), sf writers he has known (there’s a lot of those!), and things that interest him (the list is endless).
I believe that Man Plus deserves its place in science fiction history. It deserved a Nebula at the time and it deserves being read today. It challenges you to think about what it is to be human, how we humans are going to deal with our burgeoning population and consumption of natural resources, and it questions our reliance on computers. Finally, it’s one more way that Man might go to Mars.
What books have filled you with that sense of wonder?
Do you think colonizing Mars, the moon, or another planet will help us deal with problems of overpopulation or disappearing natural resources?
If you liked this post, you may like the others in the Going to Mars, Word by Word series.