Monday, May 19, 2008

Review - Man Plus

Man Plus
by Frederik Pohl
1976 Nebula Winner for Best Novel

Pop quiz for you. You're the administrator of a manned mission to Mars which is supposed to help pull the world back from the brink of World War III. Part of this involved converting a human being to a cyborg capable of surviving unaided on the surface of Mars. The previous test subject for this project developed a mental instability, had a stroke and died. You are now performing the same conversion on a man whose wife is having an affair with the engineer who designed most of the cybernetic body. Do you:

A. Lay out a specific plan and schedule in advance keeping the astronaut being changed apprised of every variation and step so that nothing can come as a shock to him.

B. Don't tell him anything and use meaningless euphemisms when talking about the procedures in front of him; when he wakes up castrated he'll figure out what that last "minor cosmetic modification" was.

Question two: As stated this mission is vital to the survival of the earth. As such you:

A. Plan and train in multiple waves of back ups for years in advance; you can always use the people training as back ups for later flights after all.

B. Work in someone for a complete body replacement two months before launch and substitute a trained astronaut for someone with no training nine days before launch.

Question three: the appropriate time for astronauts to be apprised of mission details for their trip to Mars is:

A. Several years in advance so they can take advantage of every valuable second that they're there.

B. Once they're on Mars.

If you've answered B to these three questions then you too can be an administrator for NASA in Man Plus!

Now I'm not an astronaut. I'm not even an astronaut buff. Yet somehow I came away from this book certain that I could manage the space program better. The decisions and choices made in Man Plus revolve around generating drama and as such feel completely artificial and forced. While having the man who's cuckolding him castrate the astronaut might make a good parallel it also makes an incredibly stupid plot twist.

But I've only begun to scratch the surface of how bad Man Plus is. For example, it's fifty pages in before we are informed that in the future monogamous marriage relationships are not normal and both the protagonist astronaut and his wife have had affairs before. This vital piece of information radically changes the nature of the central story but it's not a surprise twist or a shocking reveal; it's just a fact that's dropped and it left me feeling annoyed.

It's worse than that with the withheld information, though; after nearly one hundred and thirty pages of being repeatedly hold how vital getting a man on Mars is it's mentioned in passing that this isn't the first manned Mars mission. If putting a man on Mars is so vital to the psychology of the world then why weren't any of the other trips (at least five other missions; probably more) important?

And finally the majority of the book is written in an omniscient third person voice. Then occasionally for a paragraph or two it slips to a first person. This is supposed to be a mysterious party for the big twist ending but it just feels sloppy and the reveal when it comes isn't even that interesting. It doesn't even have an impact on the book; it would have been exactly the same story without the twist only there wouldn't have been some of the clumsy writing.

So characters presented as cliches and idiots for the sake of the story, a story that doesn't make any sense, and is poorly told. Man Plus is a loser all the way around. I strongly suspect the book of being one of the early examples of personal politics running the Nebula awards, especially since Pohl was the president of the SFWA which hands out the awards at the time Man Plus was published and when he received the award.