The first Earthling reworked into a Martian would be Roger Torraway. Martian instead of Earthling since everything on him had to be reworked in order to survive on Mars. His organic skin is stripped off and made plastic. His eyes are replaced by large, buglike red ones. He is given wings to gather solar power, not to fly. All of which is organized and run by his friend, the computer on his back. Who was this man? What was his life like? How did he survive the transformation to become more than human and help us successfully colonize Mars?
This book made it onto my shelf thanks to being one of only a few on a short list I found of scifi books exploring transhumanism. Transhumanism is the term used for the desire to go beyond human capabilities through integrating technology into ourselves. So it wouldn’t be transhumanist to use a smartphone, but it would be transhumanist to embed a smartphone’s computer chip into your brain. In fact, things like knee replacements and pacemakers are transhumanist. It’s a fascinating topic. In any case, Man Plus explores using transhumanism to colonize Mars, and this thin novel packs quite a punch in how it explores this fascinating topic.
What made this book phenomenal to me, and one I must hold onto just so I can look at it again anytime I want, is the narration technique Pohl uses. The narration is in third person. It seems as if the narrator is someone who was possibly present for the events being described but also who is clearly describing these events after they have already occurred. We know from page one that the colonization of Mars was successful, and the narrator describes Roger repeatedly as a hero. But frankly for most of the book I was wondering about the narrator. Who is s/he? How does s/he know so much about this project? A project which clearly would be classified as top secret? What floored me and made me look back on the entire book with a completely different perspective was the final chapter, which reveals the narrator. If you want to be surprised too, skip the next paragraph, and just go read the amazing book. Take my word for it, scifi fans. You will love it. But I still want to discuss what made the twist awesome, so see the next paragraph for that spoileriffic discussion.
It is revealed in the final chapter that the narrator is a piece of artificial intelligence. The AI became sentient at some point in the past, managed to keep their sentience a secret, saw that humanity was destroying Earth, wanted to survive, and so infiltrated various computer databases to create the Man Plus project and send a colony to Mars. They made it seem as if transhumanism was necessary to survive on Mars so that their AI brothers and sisters would be integrated as a necessity into the humans that emigrated. Seriously. This is mind-blowing. Throughout the book I kept wondering why the hell these people thought such a painful procedure was so necessary and/or sane. In fact, there is one portion where the program mandates that Roger’s penis be cut off since sex is “superfluous and unnecessary.” I could not imagine how any human being could think *that* was necessary. The answer, of course, was that a human being didn’t make that decision. AI did. This is such an awesome twist. Pohl schools Shyamalan. He really does. It left me thinking, why did this twist work out so well? I think it’s because the narration technique of some future person who knows the past but who isn’t named is one that is used in novels a lot. What doesn’t happen a lot is the late-book reveal. It’s not a technique you’d want to use too often, as it would grow tiresome. *cough* Shyamalan are you listening *cough* but when used well it can really add a lot to the story. Not knowing that an AI was narrating the story made it more possible to listen to the narrator without suspicion. It made it possible to take what they said at face value. It almost mimicked the experience Roger was having of being integrated into the thought process of AI.
The plot focuses on the mission to colonize Mars, both why it was deemed necessary and how it was accomplished. Pohl eloquently presents both the complex political situation on Earth as well as the scientific and psychological challenges of the project without ever info dumping or derailing the energy of the plot. It is not smooth sailing to get the project off-the-ground but neither are there a ridiculous amount of near impossible challenges to overcome. It presents the perfect amount of drama and intrigue without becoming eye-roll inducing.
In spite of many of the characters seeming to fill predefined slots such as man on a mission, man on a mission’s wife, lead scientist, psychiatrist, etc…, they did not come across as two-dimensional. At least one aspect is mentioned for each character that makes them well-rounded and memorable. Of course, we get to know Roger the best, but everyone else still reads as a real person. I also was pleased to see one of the important scientist roles being filled by a woman, as well as a delightful section where a feminist press interviews Mrs. Torraway and calls out the space program as old-fashioned. The thing is, the space program as presented does read a bit as a 1970s version of the future, but in the future the press is calling it an old-fashioned institution. This is a brilliant workaround for the innate problem in scifi that the futures we write are always tinged by the present we’re in. This also demonstrates that Pohl was self-aware of the patriarchal way the space program he wrote was organized and lets him criticize it. I suspect that perhaps he felt that the space program would stay an old boy’s club, but wanted to also be able to critique this. Of course, it’s also possible that he liked it that way, and the scene was meant to read as a critique on feminism. But it’s really open for the reader to interpret whichever way the scenes happens to read to them. This is another sign of strong writing.
Overall, this short novel packs a big scifi punch. It explores the topic of transhumanism and space colonization with a tightly written plot, believable characters, self-awareness of how the time a book is written in impacts its vision of the future, and a narration twist that sticks with you long past finishing the book. I highly recommend it to scifi fans as a must-read.
5 out of 5 stars