A Vision of the Future-Past: Cobra Outlaw by Timothy Zahn

Timothy Zahn has been writing Cobra novels since the 1980s. After the first trilogy (Cobra in 1985, Cobra Strike in 1986, Cobra Bargain in 1988, rereleased in omnibus as The Cobra Trilogy in 2004), however, two decades intervened before the publication of a second trilogy (Cobra Alliance, Cobra Guardian, and Cobra Gamble, 2009-2012).

Now, with 2013’s Cobra Slave and this year’s Cobra Outlaw, one finds oneself in the middle of a third Cobra trilogy—and it makes for an interesting reading experience.

The first interesting thing about it is how poorly the worldbuilding holds up. What might have been believably future-y in the 1980s now seems (apart from the space travel and aliens) a lot like a vision of the past. In the age of drones and smartwatches, social media and electronic surveillance, the future world Zahn’s characters inhabit looks pretty damn old-fashioned. Not least in the deeply-ingrained sexism of his societies: the human polity of which the “Cobra Worlds” are an isolated, effectively independent colony—and which showed up to reclaim its isolated colonies in the course of Cobra Slave — doesn’t permit women into its military at all, and characters from there tend to dismiss women fairly thoroughly, while in the “Cobra Worlds,” there is only one woman in what is effectively a combat position. From my perspective, this is pretty baffling—and a solid reminder that Zahn’s worldbuilding here is actually older than I am.

But setting has never been Zahn’s strongest point in his non-franchise work. What he excels at—and what he gives us to no small degree here—is the rollicking fast-paced adventure story, filled with pyrotechnics and exciting incidents, capers and dodges and the occasional explosion.

The Cobra Worlds were settled from the Dominion of Man several generations back, after a war with the alien Troft. They’re named for the Cobras, augmented supersoldiers whose implanted equipment was designed to help them infiltrate Troft-held worlds. Now they serve as combination police force, wilderness patrol, and military. Cobra Slave and Cobra Outlaw follow the adventures of the latest generations of one family of Cobras: Jin Moreau, the first female Cobra; her husband Paul Broom, and her children, Merrick and Lorne (both Cobras) and her daughter, Jody (who as Cobra Outlaw ends, has just become a Cobra in order to try to find and rescue Merrick) over the course of a) an invasion by several factions of Trofts, b) the subsequent attempt by Dominion of Man forces to re-establish their authority over the Cobra Worlds, and c) various other shenanigans involving the Cobra Worlds’ sometime ally, Qasama.

Neither the Dominion of Man nor the Trofts have the Cobra Worlds’ best interests at heart. Nor the Moreau-Broom family’s. Paul spends Cobra Outlaw a captive; Jin, Lorne, and Jody are all, in various ways, on the run; while Merrick is undercover and alone, posing as a slave on a Troft planet.

Zahn writes solid, believable characters and entertaining action. Some of the best scenes involve leaping off buildings or sneaking past guards, and conversation between allies or family members. Although there are occasions where a character overlooks obvious possibilities for narrative contrivance, for the most part, Cobra Outlaw is just fun enough that I don’t care. I like reading about the Moreau-Broom family putting spokes in just about everyone’s wheels: this is the kind of story that doesn’t demand much of the reader beyond sitting back and enjoying the ride.

Cobra Outlaw is available now from Baen.

Liz Bourke is a cranky person who reads books. Her blog. Her Twitter.


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