After the tiresome experience of exams, I’m finally free to return to blogging semi-regularly, which is pretty exciting – for me, at least! It took me a long time to decide what I should write about (seriously, I have so many drafts I gave up on…), but finally decided to settle on something easy, Man Plus, since I had just finished it the other day.
Man Plus, by Frederik Pohl, is another sci-fi book, supposedly a classic of its genre. As for Frederik Pohl, he’s another one of those old sci-fi greats whom few people read nowadays, having been eclipsed by the likes of Asimov and Philip K Dick; I myself only knew him because I found a book by him at the library… This is the only book of his that I’ve read, so I can’t comment much on him, except that his classic work is Space Merchants of Venus or something similarly pulpy and dramatic sounding.
So, the book itself – the whole plot is that, in the future, NASA is looking to colonise Mars, and is creating a cyborg to do so. According to computer predictions, there will be nuclear war unless something diverts humanity’s attention, such as colonising Mars, hence the project. There are a few twists and turns here and there; I can’t say how easy it is to figure out, since I’d already read about the plot twist inadvertently, which was a bit of a shame. Anyhow, the writing is decent, and the book seems believable in a way, though it does suffer from a very 70s view of the future; it’s hard to describe exactly what I mean by that, but, if the Dear Reader so desires to obtain a copy of Man Plus, then the Dear Reader will undoubtedly understand what I’m talking about; there’s this odd 70s quality that just attaches to the novel, and refuses to be shaken off. The plot twist is, in some ways, a bit clichéd (it was a lot of work to get that accented ‘e’ in…), but the novel still works well, and is definitely an interesting read, especially as a product of its time.
The most interesting part of the book, however, is its theme of what happens to a person who is chopped apart, modified, broken, repaired, and so on, so as to become a cyborg. Firstly, there’s the stereotypical transhumanism part, where the cyborg, Roger Torroway, becomes further apart from humanity, distancing himself from the rest of humanity through his changed body. The book shows this rather well by the relationship between Roger and his wife, and how this changes as he changes, and slowly becomes more and more distant as he becomes further away from humanity, evidenced in disdain for the normal human life. This part is also rather ordinary, though I suppose it might not have been as usual when Man Plus was first written. However, the book has a fascinating question posed by one of Roger’s friends, as he becomes more and more concerned about Roger.
Since Roger, as cyborg, now perceives far more than a human, such as x-ray, infared, a broader range of the light spectrum, and so on, he would go insane if he always saw everything. To get around this, an inhibiting system is implanted, so a computer decides whether Roger should see something, or else it will simply not show it to Roger’s brain; worse, the computer will shape people and things to encourage an appropriate reaction from Roger, e.g. a potentially threatening person would appear as a monstrous creature to encourage Roger to flee. Roger’s friend, Don Kayman, is then concerned: if Roger’s own senses are completely untrustworthy, and if Roger cannot even everything but rather only what a computer decides he should see, then how can Roger truly be a part of the word? Can Roger really grasp humanity and life, and, as Pohl puts it, ‘the Truth’? I found this a fascinating question to ponder, and one of the most enjoyable parts of the book. I know someone would probably say that one’s senses are untrustworthy anyway, but this is above and beyond mere delusion or blindness, and quite interesting to think about.
So, that’s Man Plus. Is it one of the best sci-fi books ever written? No. But it is well worth reading, regardless, as it is an interesting look at the fears of the future, at least in 1970s America, and contains some fascinating questions concerning humanity, and the relationship between mankind and machine. If there is nothing else to do over the joyful summer break, then I would encourage the Dear Reader to fetch aft’ the book, and have at it!