Frederik Pohl had been a major figure in science fiction for some time before he picked up this Nebula Award. He had actually edited major science fiction magazines back in the ‘30s.
Man Plus tells the story of a near-future mission to Mars. Rather than dealing with the red planet’s harsh climate through terraforming, scientists instead plan to create a cyborg that can live out in the open on Mars. It’s easier to change people than it is to change a whole planet. The problem is that this intense medical procedure has dramatic psychological effects on the subjects. The first such cyborg dies suddenly from information overload, and an astronaut named Roger Torraway is next on the list. Most of the novel is concerned with Torraway’s anguish as his body is completely overhauled, and he is slowly transformed into a nine foot tall, solar-powered, armored creature that doesn’t eat, drink, or breathe.
The main subplot of the book is the rapidly deteriorating state of world. We learn that the United States is on the verge of a war with China, the President is wildly unpopular, and models predict that there will be societal collapse and nuclear war if the mission to Mars does not succeed (apparently, the news will unite humanity…which may have seemed more plausible a few years after Apollo 11 than it does today).
The biggest source of Roger’s anguish is his beautiful wife, who is clearly cheating on him throughout the procedure. This was my least favorite aspect of the book; we spend a lot of time with Torraway’s sexual frustrations and his rather annoying homelife. At times, I felt like I was watching an ABC primetime soap called Desperate Astronaut’s Wives. This storyline really does make up the bulk of the book.
Pohl’s writing style is creative and engaging. At first, the novel seems to be narrated in the third person omniscient, but we eventually learn that there is an actual narrator, which makes for an interesting mystery and a fun writing trick (though the eventual resolution was not all that thrilling). The problem is that there’s simply not enough plot here to sustain the novel. It could have been a brilliant short story, but as it is, it’s a thin story with over a hundred pages of soap opera padding.