Science Fiction Though the Decades

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

1976: Man Plus (Pohl, Frederik)

Throw-back from the 70s best kept there (2/5)
From July 29, 2009

I'll begin by giving credit where credit is due. This book was published in 1976 and has the hyphenated word broad-band, where as nowadays, the word isn't hyphenated, as broadband. That there is a sense of vision, as the English language tends to hyphenate words before combining them into a compound word. And that's about where the visionary writing ceases. The rest of the book is a rehash of old ideas and old sub-culture references.

In prior conversation with fellow sci-fi blogger Joachim Boaz, we have both mentioned that Pohl being one of the most over-rated science fiction authors of all time. Of the eleven Pohl novels I've read, six have received a 2-star rating. Man Plus is among Pohl's worst novels along with Beyond the Blue Event Horizon (1980), Syzygy (1982), and Black Star Rising (1985).

In regards to the Man Plus experiment itself, a few items struck me as poorly thought out. One: why does Man Plus need to have an enema when the Man Plus on Mars will have use for its sphincter due to the atmospheric pressure? Two: in the beginning the `bat wings' were for heat dispersal but later on the wings are used for energy absorption (heatsinks would have been more suitable for heat dispersal and also less of a corny idea). Three: Why did the team building have trouble, of all things, with the throat mike, when they could accomplish such feats as replacing an entire mans body? Four: There was utmost attention (2 pages to be exact) paid to the layman's explanation of how frog's eyes worked when the rest of the story paid no attention to the frog-like function's of Man Plus' eyes.

During the 60s and 70s (and perhaps to a lesser degree the 50s and 80s), there was an increase in the amount of effort to make sci-fi novels sexy. And not "sophisticated sexy" but more like "drop-sex-into-random-paragraphs-for-the-teenaged-readers sexy." Pohl has a tendency to randomly slap sex onto the pages of his novels when the sexiness really isn't called for--as in it leads little credence to the plot or characterization. Sexiness can be done artfully and/or tastefully, but Pohl lacks the grace of including sexual beings into his stories, rather it comes out of bestial lush of a one-track minded alpha male (ah, that rings true with a number of Pohl novels, actually). More to the point, Man Plus mentions "screw" six times, to a more mature degree it mentions the word "sex" five times and beyond these two words, an additional twenty references are made towards copulation, coitus, penetration, matings, etc.

For a book heralding the words, "A novel of unbearable suspense... a desperate political gamble to save earth from destroying itself... the struggle of a man is more than a man to becomes the first Martian," there isn't as much Mars as there could be. Only about the last 15% of the entire novel is dedicated to actually being on Mars. The rest of the novel is filled with the Man Plus research (which is actually fairly interesting, except for the rambling bits like frog vision), the political turmoil around the world (nice broad play here by Pohl but the generic references to Asia is annoying as Asia does, after all, have a third of the world's population) and a predictable set of events stemming from Roger and Dorrie's superficial marriage.

Sadly, there was a, frankly, stupid ending to the novel which brought the entire book down one star. It seems as if the last five pages was a desperate attempt to tie it into a sequel (and look, there IS a sequel!). This reviewer, however, is not conned into reading the sequel after this half-hearted 70s attempt. There is more sophisticated sci-fi in the world.


  1. Pohl did some amazing work editing magazines, and his early stuff can be good. (Thinking of some of his short stories, and The Space Merchants.) But he was a mediocre writer on a good day, and I haven't been impressed by any of his novels, all of which are horribly overrated.

  2. I'd really like to get my hands onto a whole load of his early collections (1950s - 1960s) but seems the most accessible work of Pohl's is after 1970, which has yet to impress me. I can't believe the old-timer is still alive. He published a book last year, All the Lives He Led, but it wasn't well received.

  3. Look into "The Best of Frederik Pohl." It collects a bunch of his '50s-'60s short stories. I've read about half the stories in it; several were great, and the worst ones were still decent. (Well, at least better than his novels.)

    I wasn't aware Pohl's still publishing novels (!), but I have kept an eye on his blog, The Way the Future Blogs. Some of his posts on SF history or his tenure editing Galaxy are fascinating, but a lot of his posts are either preachy or some kind of chain letter.