Manshape is a disappointment, mainly because it comes so close to being every bit as intellectually challenging as it wants to be, only to crumble into bits as you begin to realize how philosophically full of crap the whole thing really is. The story — reworked by Brunner from his 1964 novella "Bridge to Azrael" — is set in the distant future, at a time when Earth is busily re-establishing contact with all of its long out of touch colonial worlds via a remarkable new invention called the Bridge, which allows for instantaneous travel across the light years. The Bridge is run by one Jorgen Thorkild, who, of late, has been suffering what you might call work-related stress in the form of some brutal existential angst — aggravated, no doubt, by the suicide of his predecessor. Thorkild cannot fathom how the greatest technological achievement of humanity's history has bred indifference, ennui, outright nihilism amongst the human race. Everyone in this tale's future is utterly dehumanized, it would seem, and indeed, it is said that the Bridge is now Earth's only reason for continuing to exist at all. If that seems to be a bit much to swallow, that's because it is.
With his story on shaky philosophical footing at its start, Brunner shifts the action to the planet Azrael, where the populace is immersed in a culture that exalts death as the highest goal. Yes, yes, the question of "well, why don't they all just commit suicide?" is dealt with, as a character named Hans Demetrios, a "pantologist" who supposedly possesses extraordinary skills at reasoning and deduction (and yet whose conclusions don't seem to be outside the realm of understanding of, say, an intelligent SF writer like John Brunner), journeys to Azrael to puzzle out the natives' customs. Azrael has struck a savage blow to Earth's sense of self-worth by turning down the offer of the Bridge, which we are expected to agree is such an inconceivable and egregious thing that any colony that does so must be turned around to the right way of thinking at once. I wonder if Brunner was aware of the neo-fascist implications underlying the idea that the Bridge cannot be an optional item; colony worlds simply must accept it for their own good, and that's that.
Demetrios is convinced there is a fundamental flaw in the reasoning of the Azraelites (well, duh), and if he can only draw it out and expose it, they'll come around. But to his credit, his motivation is not to benefit the Earth but primarily to free the Azraelities from such a grim culture. But all of the profound philosophical conclusions Demetrios reaches really aren't much more than common sense thinking when you get right down to it, a fact Brunner seems to realize with an offhanded sarcastic comment by a minor character near the book's end: "Who needs to be told so?"
Throughout, Manshape is readable, with well-realized characters, humor, and some good scenes that show Brunner in fine form. It's only that the ideas which Brunner expects his readers to swallow in one gulp without complaint really go down like castor oil mixed with ipecac. Yes, I can see Brunner's point when he depicts a humanity that has come to take for granted such amazing technological marvels that their sense of wonder has been bled dry; sadly we see that sort of thing in real life every day. But I just don't buy that Azrael's refusal to accept the Bridge would lead to a rash of suicides on Earth, any more than modern day Americans would be driven to mass suicide just because nobody on some remote desert island wanted satellite TV with DSL internet hookups. There are other flaws in the tale that damage its credibility as well. The story's 160-page brevity means some plot threads are either wrapped up with a patness bordering on the melodramatic, or abandoned altogether.
The ultimate message of Manshape is that we mustn't lose touch with that vital essense of humanity — sharing ourselves on a person to person basis — even as our technologies threaten to reduce us by bringing the vastness of the universe to our very doorsteps. Hear hear, I say. But you know, one can arrive at that realization far more rationally and sensibly than this novel does. Just give someone you care for a hug.