Friday, August 12, 2011

Book Review: Man Plus

Frederik Pohl
Awards: Nebula
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ –

Good story ideas come in all sizes. Some are so big they need to have trilogies (or even ennealogies) written to fully flesh them out. For others, one 200-page book is fine. And others are better off as short stories.

Frederik Pohl seems to have an instinct for writing up his original ideas (or original takes on old ideas) into appropriately sized books. He fully explores his premise but doesn’t beat it to death. This means that his books usually end up being relatively short but efficient Cool Idea Delivery Systems.

I think this is the best book by Pohl that I have read so far. Many people have written stories about the colonization of Mars by humans. Usually the premise is that we will terraform Mars to support human life. In Man Plus, instead, the U.S. has a top-secret project to physically modify a human being – a man named Roger Torraway – so that he can survive on the surface of Mars.

Scientists replace his skin with a super-tough, rhinocerous-like hide that can withstand high solar radiation and temperatures hundreds of degrees below freezing. They replace his lungs and most of his circulatory and digestive systems with machinery so that he needs hardly any oxygen or food. They give him new eyes that can see into the infrared and ultraviolet bands of the spectrum. And they put big solar panels on his back to power the parts of him that are now mechanical.

Naturally, there are forces at work conspiring to make the project difficult. One is internal; Roger’s wife Dorrie is a bit of an unsupportive whiner and is also having an affair with one of the project’s scientists. This is pretty upsetting to Roger, especially at a time when he’s being turned into an unrecognizable monster and preparing to spend two years alone in space.

The other problem is external. According to all the most reliable governmental models, the world will soon descend into nuclear war. The only thing that will turn the projections around, apparently, is a successful manned mission to Mars (to rally and inspire humanity, I presume). The pressure on the Man Plus scientists to succeed in an unrealistically short time is therefore immense, so much so that their only other Mars-altered human subject died in the lab from too much aggressive testing.

It’s a good premise and the story is suspenseful in its own subtle way. You want to find out if Roger can survive all the operations and the mental and physical stress and make it to Mars, and you really want to find out what it’s like through his eyes when he gets there. For most of the book, Pohl keeps dangling the promise of the upcoming mission just out of reach (of both you and Roger) like a tasty carrot.

There is also a quiet, almost incidental mystery running through the book about who the narrator is. Most of the time I forgot to wonder about it, as I was absorbed in the rest of the story, but it does add a nice additional piece of intrigue and allows the book to end with a bit of an extra flourish.

No comments:

Post a Comment

HTML Tag Instructions

Bold: To make text bold, tag it as follows:

<b>text you want to appear in bold</b>

Italic: To italicize text, tag it as follows:

<i>text you want to appear in italic</i>

Links: To add clickable links, like say to a Wikipedia article on baseball, tag it as follows:

<a href="">text you want to link from</a>

Related Posts with Thumbnails