Monday, April 18, 2016

#55: A Journey to the Center of the Earth, #125: Man Plus

A Journey to the Center of the Earth:

"...silence increased day by day. I believe it even infected us. External forces have real effects on the brain. Whoever shuts himself up between four walls soon loses the power to bring words and ideas together. How many prisoners in solitary confinement become idiots, if not mad, for lack of exercise for their thinking faculty!"
"Science, my boy, is built on errors, but errors which it's good to commit because they gradually lead to the truth."
If you're making a "Best of Sci-Fi" list that truly encompasses the history of the genre, you'd be a fool to leave out the work of Jules Verne. No one can deny that his influence on SF is tremendous --you might even call him the world's first science fiction writer --the guy who paved the way for Wells and Stapledon; as well as Heinlein, Clarke, and Asimov after them. With all this out of the way now, I must say I tend to find Verne a bit underwhelming, with my modern sensibilities. I'm sure he seem much more exciting and innovative in his day, but as I've read his novels, I've found myself wanting more, indeed, even expecting more from such a pioneer.
A Journey to the Center of the Earth is a fairly typical adventurous exploration story. I am sometimes wary of these kinds of novels because there is usually no concrete antagonist --the author has to purely rely on the invocation of a sense of wonder and perilous situations that come with exploration of the unknown to keep our attention. Admittedly, I enjoy a well-characterized antagonist more than almost anything in fiction; the awful Mrs. Coulter makes Lyra even more heroic and likable in Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials series; Vladimir Harkonnen does something similar with Paul Atreides in Dune. But Verne's Journey deals with this issue in a fairly clever way. The "antagonist" could be the treacherous caverns beneath the Earth, sure --but it could also be Professor Lidenbrock, the uncle of our narrator, who commences this dangerous mission with haste and apparent disregard for the lives of his nephew, his hired hand, or himself. Axel, the hesitant narrator, deals with his uncle's unbridled enthusiasm with exasperation, disbelief and resignation, in turns, throughout the novel, and it can be both entertaining and charming --that is, when we are not so wrapped up in the story that we too are angry with the professor!
The meat of the plot follows Axel, Professor Lidenbrock, and their hired hand, Hans, in their attempt to journey to the center of the Earth. It starts off quite fast-paced and easy to tear through in its first few dozen pages. A problem arises, it is soon solved, and we move on. The eccentric professor is easily the best sketched-out character, and the most fun. He is portrayed as a force of nature by the impressionable Axel, and he certainly seems to deserve it. After these beginning sections, the pace slows down somewhat. Things are still being done, and Axel and the Professor are certainly getting somewhere in their mission, but too much time is spent "above ground", so to speak. The journey from Germany to Iceland (where the passage into the Earth is located) takes up a lot of pages, even though Axel does not delve into too much detail concerning each stop along the way. If I were Verne's editor, I would have suggested cutting a few pages here and there from these more mundane sections.
The actual journey inside the Earth is more exciting, treacherous, and intriguing. The wonders that the group encounters when they begin to really get deep into the Earth's crust are the most enjoyable parts of the novel. I only wish Verne had spent more time here, than in the sections above ground, and those spent in comparatively dull corridors of rock. More encounters with prehistoric-type monsters (there were much fewer than I was expecting) would have really made the novel come alive in its final third. Regardless, there were still some very interesting ideas (the sea under the world, the bone graveyard, and the creatures that we do encounter) that I really enjoyed. After a brief time spent among these wonders, Verne rushes the ending a bit, although things do end, more or less, wrapped up.While I never really got tremendously bogged down in any one section (partly because the novel was only 232 pages), pacing issues were my main gripe with this novel. However, I did enjoy it for the most part, especially the air of dry humor we get in interactions between Axel and the Professor.
Another part that did not bother me so much, but which might irk the more Hard-SF-inclined among us, is the science in this novel. Yes, we must allow for the fact that it was written in the 1800's, but a lot of the science in this novel struck me (not exactly an expert scientist), as extremely suspect and just plain bad. Take that as you will... To end my review, though, I think it's appropriate to turn from the moderate negatives we find in the particulars of this book, to its broader appeal.
This novel is worth the read simply for its significance to the genre. If you're somewhat of an amateur SF historian, like myself, you simply cannot get by unless you have read some Verne: this one and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, specifically. So while it comes across a bit dated at times, I have no trouble predicting that this book will continue to be read by many for centuries to come.

Man Plus:

"What the astronauts represented was a dream. The dream was priceless to the Man in the Street, especially if it was a dank, stinking Calcutta street where families slept on the sidewalk and roused themselves at dawn to queue for the one free bowl of food. It was a gritty, grimy world, and space gave it a little bit of beauty and excitement. Not much, but better than none at all."
"...scientists' estimates of 'reality' changed from year to year... In the 'reality' of scientific opinion, life on Mars had been born and died a dozen times."
"...he was still sane. The way to keep sane was to keep from worrying. The way to keep from worrying was to think of other things."
Man Plus is one of those novels that's on the cusp of breaking from "pretty good" to "great" territory --but it cannot quite complete the leap, and it's hard to pinpoint exactly why. I had a similar experience with the only other Pohl novel I have read thus far (Jem), although I did end up preferring Man Plus to Jem. Maybe it's the length (only 187 pages), or maybe it's the relatively abrupt conclusion (spoiler alert: only the last 40 or so pages are actually spent on Mars), but I felt that Man Plus just needed a bit more tweaking to be a really outstanding work of science fiction.
Don't get me wrong, though Man Plus is a very clever and enjoyable read. The gist of the plot is this: Roger Torroway, a retired astronaut, is preparing to go to Mars. But his methods of preparation are not quite what one would expect. Torroway's fleshy body is essentially dismantled and replaced with a system of mechanical parts --more sturdy skin, senses, and reflexes that will ensure his survival on Mars without any other equipment. Enmeshed within his cyborg body there are a few paltry organic parts remaining (his brain is the main one), but the vast majority of his physical body has become metal and plastic. We follow Roger as he goes through training and mechanical tweaks in a secret lab on Earth. The project is very important  --President of the United States is very much involved-- because it seems that human life on Earth is in danger of going extinct thanks to international tensions, diseases, and tremendous poverty. Computer projections have suggested that the end is near, and Torroway could be the last hope for humanity's survival. But how will this impotent cyborg reproduce once humanity is wiped out on Earth?, one might ask. Pohl never directly answers this question, but it seems that only nations are working on similar cyborg projects, while we also hear that Roger has had some sperm frozen.
Indeed, the main concern of the novel isn't so much in the far-off future. Pohl makes things much more immediate than that. I've heard the pace of this novel described as "frenetic", and there's still some truth in that, but I would prefer to call it briskly and enjoyably fast-paced. Frankly, I've read many books paced even faster. All things considered, I think the sense of urgency throughout the novel is a boon, as the reader is caught up in the rush to make Roger Mars-ready... before things are too late.
And, to be fair, there are some nice breaks in these urgent episodes, to focus on Roger's psychological profile --how he reacts to being physically cut off from his wife, how he reacts to being made less than (or more than?) human, and how he reacts to physically looking like a monster. Pohl did a nice job here, but I think he could have delved deeper and spend more time giving us longer chunks of inner monologue from Roger. This kind of deliberate dehumanization provides a lot of food for thought on the philosophical level, and it would have been nice to get some more "meat" here.
At the novel's conclusion, when Roger and a small crew of "normal" Earthmen reach Mars, we have a few episodes that, while interesting, are a bit underwhelming in the greater scheme of things. More time of Mars would have been really cool! Nevertheless, there's a decent amount of drama and action here to help bring things to a quick close. In the final chapter (only about 3 pages), there's a nice reveal of the mysterious first person "we" who crops up sparingly throughout the novel. It helps add some "oomph" to an ending that was otherwise a bit lacking in that territory.
Reading this review so far, I notice that I have been somewhat harsh in an overarching way (I would still recommend this book and I still found myself enjoying it much of the time)...but I think all of my complaints have legitimacy to them. So I'll balance these with a bit of praise to end things: Pohl's matter-of-fact style is very readable, relatable, and fun. His grasp on interpersonal relationships strikes me as above-average in a genre that sometimes yields stiff, unrealistic characters. With an intriguing blend of cynicism and optimism, Man Plus could be classified as an interplanetary Alas, Babylon of sorts (a novel which I enjoyed quite a bit)...
...if only Pohl had fleshed some parts out a little more!

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