Man Plus (1976) by Frederik Pohl

ManPlus1In a criticism of the sterilized suburban existence of mid-20th America, Frederik Pohl’s protagonist of Man Plus, Roger Torraway (look at that loaded surname), celebrated astronaut on the downslope of fame, undergoes an extreme physical transformation in order to join a colonial mission to Mars, and likewise experiences a bewildering internal transformation that upsets his life, his perspective, and, ultimately, his place as a modern American male. He also gets bug eyes.

Roger and Dorrie Torraway live in Tonka, Oklahoma, “a nice couple… in a nice world,” (loc. 60), among a suburban community of other ex-astronauts, scientists, and their wives. Along with trotting the globe for minor celebrity appearances, Roger helps to oversee the making of “the monster,” what they call “Man Plus,” the cybernetic, genetic, and surgical conversion of a human, into a being who can withstand the harsh environment of Mars, in order to claim it as a colony of the United States. But the experiment fails with the first volunteer and, due to a series of unlucky incidents, Roger is next in line for the slow and painful conversion.

“They were just oddball enough to be distinctive, not odd enough to worry anyone” (loc. 55).

Among the many institutions Pohl takes to task, the American marriage, with its hypocrisies, its pressures, and its impracticalities, is first on his list. The novel begins almost as satire, a mocking, deadpan description of the perfect couple, with their perfect life, and their good-humored relationship that’s clearly based on stanched insecurities and averted looks. The satire flavor is chewed away soon enough, and Roger’s delusions about his marriage falter, just in time for his traumatic series of operations. From there, we find him isolated, uncomfortable, depressed as he moves from agonizing post-surgical fog to agonizing post-surgical fog, familiarizing himself with his new body parts, mourning the loss of others, and obsessing over his rocky relationship with Dorrie, who won’t come visit his new monster physique.

ManPlus2U. S. politics also gets it in the kisser, with Pohl’s characterization of the charismatic, bullshitting President Dash, and his overcautious, media-conscious administration. Although Pohl’s criticism is directed at 1970’s America, the story itself takes place at a later, unspecified date, when the world’s population has reached 8 billion, crippled by wars, limited resources, and labor strikes, with “collectivist dictatorships everywhere you look, bar one or two holdouts like Sweden and Israel” (loc. 328). Intra-system space travel is a more common occurrence, where we see elements of the less heated Cold War mentality, turning away from bombs and toward the space race to colonize Mars, with dozens of settlements already in Earth’s orbit and on the moon.

As social critiques run the length of the novel, there are points in Pohl’s Man Plus that seem to serve as a rallying cry to continue humanity’s mission to space. “Man survives in places where he ought to die, by bringing a kinder environment with him.  He carries what he needs,” (loc. 373). Published in the decade after the Apollo 11 moon landing, and during the notable 1970s drop in positive public opinion regarding American space exploration, it’s no surprise that Pohl’s story might be influenced by a driving need to comment on the sudden dip in American space interests, and for better reasons than just nationalistic propaganda and superiority (although his President Dash hammers that point enough). He reminds us:

But there is another kind of argument that contradicts the conclusions drawn from objective facts. Man is not bound by objective facts. If they inconvenience him, he changes them, or makes an end run around them

Man cannot survive on Mars. However, man cannot survive in the Antarctic, either. But he does (loc. 373).

But, to really understand the point Pohl is orbiting, beyond the rather superficial criticisms of marriage, politics, and dismaying public opinion, we need only to look at the title of his novel, and even the language he uses. Man. Plus. Making man better. Men better. The above passage— man this, man that, he this, he that. Pohl’s novel is about man. Men man. Man men. Men.

That’s not to say that women are left out. Several of the important scientist characters are female, although we see little sciencing from them, and a whole lot of caretaking, nursing, sexual antagonizing, and sexual stimulating for our poor Roger. This is not due to any overt objectification, al la Heinlein-style, but likely a sincere attempt at inclusivism, inadvertently-turned-tokenism, that reveals more about Pohl’s own sterilized mid-20th background, the very culture he seeks to criticize. Even Pohl’s confusion about romantic partnerships is apparent, as the plot’s developmental trajectory—a failing marriage, fresh romantic interests, unattached sexual exploits in space (courtesy of Hottie Nurse/Scientist/Spy?), then satisfying true love— seems at odds with Pohl’s message. Isn’t the disappointing ideal of true, eternal love what got Roger into this psychological mess in the first place?

But the unfortunate female tokenism isn’t necessarily a problem for this book because, overall, Man Plus is really attacking its own form of gender oppression (that is what feminism is about, after all, cognates be damned), the cultural ideals of manliness, with the cookie cutter female characters being integral to that charade. Throughout his ordeal, Roger is emasculated in every way: he wife refuses him, cheats on him with a trusted colleague, is indifferent to his leaving for Mars. His body is surrendered to science and to his nation, and Roger loses his independence, and spirit, in the process. His body is cut apart, limbs and organs extracted, and replaced by uncomfortable, inorganic apparatuses. And, most unbearable of all, he is castrated. Roger is devastated when he loses his junk.

In order to become Man Plus, Roger Torreway is Torn Apart. All of the trappings of cultural manliness are removed from Roger, stripping him of his manhood, physically, socially, and psychologically. But, by shedding his, and society’s expectations, of maleness, we find that Roger can finally be at peace with himself. He finds love in himself. He self-actualizes.

ManPlus3

So metal.

But it’s not that neat and tidy, and you kind of have to wonder how much of this message is intentional, and how much is consequential. Besides, while we watch this transformation of Man to Man Plus, (perhaps while wondering how many organs humanity can afford to lose before it achieves its own self-actualization), Pohl seems to drop the thread at the end, pulling a quite literal deus ex machina twist that kind of makes sense and kind of doesn’t make sense, thus distracting the reader from these subtle undercurrents, and leaves the premise a lot like Mars—with no certainty if it even holds water.

Recommended for the folks who don’t get the term “feminism.” This is feminism, y’all. Manly feminism.

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22 thoughts on “Man Plus (1976) by Frederik Pohl

  1. romeorites says:

    That cover is so Metal. I nearly picked up a copy of Man Plus the other day. But the title sounds like cold medicine or something.
    “Having trouble with your man-flu? Try Man Plus and kick that flu to the kerb.”

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Jesse says:

    The ending really threw me for a loop, as well. (By ending I am referring to not only the ‘overlords’ final chapter, but the penultimate chapter with Roger on Mars.) I was all set to call the novel full blown satire, and then pop-snap, the gear lever went from D to R, leaving me in the Martian dust trying to puzzle out the seeming juxtaposition. I’ve had my review written for several months. It sits in my to-be-posted file with two very different introductions separated by “Which one?” I still don’t know. Did Pohl hit a conceptual note pure and true, or was he simply too coy and confused his novel’s comprehensiveness as a result? Was Pohl humanist to the bone, his satire black on black, or did he force a concept onto a novel that doesn’t fit? Satire-optmism is, after all, an oxymoron… Anyway, glad to know I’m not the only one semi-adrift on the conclusion.

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    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      Bonus point for me, then. I’ll probably read around the net this weekend to see what other conclusions have been drawn, and I can’t wait to see yours… when you decide on the angle you want to pursue, that is 😉

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  3. Great review, great analysis. I haven’t read it yet, but it sounds similar to Pohl’s other works from the ’70s. Jem took his satirical condemnation of humanity to its logical extreme… Perhaps a bit too far, it’s a black and bitter book. Gateway had the same male ennui and odd sexism, though I felt the sexism was a flaw within the protagonist since the main female role was far more likable.

    Also makes me wonder how much the book was influenced by Pohl’s life — you mention the theme of divorce, Pohl divorced fellow SF writer Judith Merrill in 1952 and separated from his second wife in the late ’70s, around the time he wrote this…

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    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      Thanks! I’m guessing most of Pohl’s stuff is satire? I’ve got Space Merchants coming up soon, and I know that’s satire as well. And reviews I’ve read here and there suggest satirical elements.

      I definitely picked up on the author’s disenchantment with marriage, although the ending sort of confuses that… but perhaps that confusion is part of what he was trying to demonstrate. “Man is misguidedly optimistic, even after growth,” which is one direction I think Jesse (above) is suggesting.

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      • You got it, Pohl was very much a satirist — he was kind of a pessimistic humanist in hindsight, always presenting humanity’s flaws and inherent optimism. I think Jesse’s analysis and your quote is spot on.

        Space Merchants is another good example of that — solid ’50s social satire. I should read it again to review it… I remember liking it but was disappointed the protagonist never really grew or developed at all.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. unsubscriber says:

    Great review of an excellent book. My copy has a different (and much better) cover to the ones used here which seem to suggest it was short changed by various art departments.

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    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      Which one do you have? I think you’re right about it being shortchanged. I didn’t see any that really popped out at me on the isfdb website, so I went with the cheesiest. But I almost always post the first edition cover as my first image.

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  5. Obviously, in order to render a man suitable for life on Mars, you would need to cut off his junk. It goes without saying.

    I like that Pohl is critiquing mid-century suburban American and its culture (or lack thereof), but his commentary seems somehow shoehorned into a sci-fi tale. Although I haven’t read it; I’m basing that on my reading of your review.

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    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      Then I gave the wrong impression. The critique is the platform for the tale, and not at all shoehorned. It’s very clearly satire from the start, which turns dark in the middle, and only fails when the end of the tale doesn’t quite reconcile with his message (although, if you see in above comments, some of us wonder if Pohl meant something by that.)

      It would be like saying that criticism of religion was wedged into Cat’s Cradle. (Pohl not being nearly as witty or talented as Vonnegut, but with the same goals apparent from the start.)

      Liked by 1 person

  6. […] devoting a month to the ‘70s. After a set of socially critical, sometimes psychedelic reads with Pohl, Silverberg, Dick, and Farmer, even a sophisticated 1953 satire like The Space Merchants feels […]

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  7. […] of the Pohl/Kornbluth duo, although I do have a great deal of respect for Pohl from what I saw in Man Plus (1976), which I think a lot of readers have unfortunately […]

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  8. […] Besides all that, it’s a standard ‘50s tale that’s more readable and relevant than most. For modern readers, Justin’s attitude swerves away from modern sentiment with his rude treatment of the unfortunately-ditzy mail girl, and his opinions about wartime refugees are alarming, but these slights feel appropriate for this brash, patriotic protagonist at odds with his internalized belief system. Most disappointing is the potentially haunting ending that collapses after an abrupt and confusing action sequence. A glance at reviews suggest the confusion is Pohl’s doing in the Tor-issued 1981 revision.** (Tor!) (And Pohl is no stranger to peculiar endings.) […]

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