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Man Plus by Frederik Pohl

Published on 11th April 2020

I wrote this review in pen first, which is therapeutic in our cloistered times.

Reading Frederik Pohl's Man Plus, I was surprised, but nonetheless intrigued by the cool objectivity of the narrator's voice. I read this novel shortly after finishing Gateway, which by any writer's standards is a hard gig to follow.

Pohl set the story in a near future which is constantly at the tipping point of social and political disaster. To an extent, he extrapolated our own times, but was no doubt reacting to the various turmoils he saw around him during the mid-70s. But hey, things are cyclical are they not? The novel's narrator emphasises this universal tension by contrasting it to the sheltered existence of our Astronaut protagonist and his wife.

'They lived in a nice world. In that they were, they knew, lucky. The rest of the world wasn't all that nice. The little wars chased themselves all over Asia and Africa and Latin America. Western Europe was sometimes strangled by strikes and often crippled by shortages, and when winter came it usually shivered. People were hungry, and a lot of them were angry, and there were very few cities a person would want to walk in alone at night.'  

The protagonist, if it's entirely accurate to call him one, is Roger Torraway. He's an Astronaut of some acclaim who's 'good-looking', highly qualified, and married to Dorrie, a 'green-eyed, black-haired teacher of ceramic sculpture.' And he holds the position of perfect specimen (third in line) for total transformation in to a cyborg for the Man Plus Project. The project is aimed at reuniting the world by extensively augmenting some lucky soul's entire body so that they can survive independently on Mars. The only remaining human part of Torraway by the end is his brain.

Pohl satirises the godlike status assigned to Astronauts. He does this by reducing 'Torraway, Col. (Ret.) USAF, B.A., M.A., D.Sc. (Hon.).' to the position of a tool for the institution, and a component in a scheme for the wider good of mankind.

'It is necessary to tell you about Roger Torraway. One human being does not seem particularly important, when there are eight billion alive. Not more important than, for example, a single microchip in a memory store. But a single chip can be decisive when it carries an essential bit, and Torraway was important in just that way.' 

Pohl imbued his leading man with a suitable blandness - just enough for the task at hand. Just enough to pass the psychological requirements needed for a project full of uncertainties, experiments, and by the time Torraway is up for duty, has already cost the life of his colleague, Willy  Hartnett. Following Willy's death, the number two man for the job breaks his leg. This leaves Torraway as a fine and fitting candidate, and a person suitable for the role of both universal saviour and martyr.

Pohl sets his readers up to expect a certain degree of horror at Torroway's transformation, but he filters this artfully through a neutral storytelling voice. Instead of forcing the psychological pressures of Torraway's transformation down the reader's throat, he shows the affects of the Astronaut's plight on the other aspects of his life. In this regard, his main focus is Dorrie, who in the more romantic part of Torraway's mind is his loyal counterpart, both emotionally nurturing and supportive. But as readers will see, the couple's underlying issues are drawn further to the surface as the transformation progresses.

Torraway's suffering then, is a universal one. Pohl is careful to balance the uniqueness of his idiosyncrasies with the stereotype of an everyman hero. Pohl even provides us with an interesting twist, as Torraway masters the guitar at a stupendous rate, while being able to reproduce every note he's learned verbatim using machine-like recall.

The main thing that excited me about this novel, like Pohl's other works, is the voice. Forgetting that this is science fiction for a moment, Pohl's attention to the craft of pitching - and sustaining - the voice of a story just right has consistently impressed me. Whether his voices came naturally to him, or he worked on them for months at a time, they are one of the defining factors in making him the storyteller of choice for Sci-Fi and non Sci-Fi readers alike.

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