In 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.
U. 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.
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.