Better, Stronger, Faster: Cobra by Timothy Zahn

In this bi-weekly series reviewing classic science fiction and fantasy books, Alan Brown looks at the front lines and frontiers of the field: books about soldiers and spacers, scientists and engineers, explorers and adventurers. Stories full of what Shakespeare used to refer to as “alarums and excursions”: battles, chases, clashes, and the stuff of excitement.

The idea of enhancing human abilities has been part of science fiction since the earliest days of the pulps. All manner of supermen, cyborgs, mutants and others have been presented to readers over the years—after all, who doesn’t sometimes dream about what it would be like to be faster or more powerful? One might have thought that, by the 1980s, the topic would have been done to death, with nothing new to be said… but a young author named Timothy Zahn came up with a story of mechanically enhanced warriors called Cobras that brought something novel and different to the concept.

Zahn’s Cobra series explored the implications of augmenting the strength and senses of soldiers, along with weapons implanted directly into their bodies—not only the impacts these developments would have on the battlefield, but also the impact this technology would have on the individual soldiers and on society at large. The first Cobra story appeared in Analog in 1982 under the title “When Jonny Comes Marching Home.” This tale did not traffic in wish fulfillment, combat, adventure, or derring-do. Instead, it looked at the challenges faced by a young veteran returning home from war after being implanted with military weaponry, sensors, and control systems that left him ill-suited for returning to the life he’d left behind.

At this point, Zahn had only been writing for a few years, with most of his output appearing in Analog. But he had already proven himself to be a meticulous writer, whose focus on science and technology was typical of Analog authors throughout the years. His thoughtful look at all aspects surrounding the mechanical enhancement of human soldiers caught the attention of many readers, and kicked off a long series of stories and books that followed the Cobra soldiers through many campaigns.

 

About the Author

Timothy Zahn (born 1951) is a noted author of both hard science fiction and more adventure-oriented fare. Zahn was first published in Analog in 1979, shortly after the magazine had gained a new editor in Stanley Schmidt, and he soon became a regular contributor. His Analog story “Cascade Point” won the Hugo Award in 1984. He branched into military adventure fiction, first with his Blackcollar stories, and then with the Cobra series, which began with tales published in Analog.

In the early 1990s, Zahn became widely known both within and beyond the science fiction community with a trilogy of Star Wars tie-in novels: Heir to the Empire, Dark Force Rising, and The Last Command. Often called The Thrawn Trilogy after one of its major characters, an alien Admiral who served the Empire, the three books became huge successes, reaching The New York Times Best Seller lists. The trilogy is credited with maintaining fan interest in the Star Wars universe during a period where no new movies were forthcoming, and Zahn has been called back again and again to write more novels featuring Admiral Thrawn (including a brand-new book, Thrawn: Treason, out next week).

Zahn has continued his career writing original fiction in addition to the Star Wars books and other media tie-ins. While his short fiction publications have become less frequent, he continues to write novels in a variety of settings. A newer series, the Dragonback novels, tells the story of a young man with a symbiotic relationship with a dragon, and the Conqueror novels published in the 1990s examine the impacts of interstellar war between humans and aliens. With David Weber, he wrote a trilogy of books tied into Weber’s Honor Harrington universe. Newer titles in his Cobra series have also appeared, expanding the series to nine books, grouped into three trilogies.

 

“Better than he was before. Better, stronger, faster.”

The words above come from the opening sequence of the mid-1970s television show The Six Million Dollar Man, one of the most widely known fictional examples of a mechanically augmented man. But the idea of enhancing human abilities has been part of science fiction since the earliest days of the pulps. Stanley Weinbaum‘s story from the 1930s, “The Adaptive Ultimate,” was an example of experimentation gone awry, with the woman undergoing augmentation becoming a threat to others. Lester Dent’s pulp tales of Doc Savage imagined what scientific educational and exercise programs could do to enhance an already exceptional person. Edmund Hamilton’s Captain Future stories were similar to the Doc Savage stories, with protagonist Curt Newton being trained from youth to fight for justice, and featured a remarkable crew that included a robot, a human-like android, and a disembodied brain. When I was reading my dad’s Analog magazines in the 1960s, John Campbell’s longtime interest in paranormal powers was clearly in evidence, with my favorite example being James Schmitz’s tales of the telepath Telzey Amberdon. I also remember the haunting “Flowers for Algernon,” by Daniel Keyes, the tale of a man whose intelligence is augmented through experimental surgery, but the effects turn out to be tragically temporary. Among my favorite tales of a superman was Robert Heinlein’s book Stranger in a Strange Land, in which the character Michael Valentine Smith was raised by Martians who have taught him to tap into massive mental powers. Gregory Benford’s far-future tales of partially-cybernetic humans, which include Great Sky River, are yet another example of enhanced humans in science fiction.

But it was in comic books that I was exposed to a dazzling array of augmented and enhanced humans in every possible shape and form. Captain America is a soldier augmented by a mixture of chemicals and radiation. There’s the human-like alien Superman, whose extraordinary powers come to life under our yellow sun. There’s the accidentally augmented Spider-Man, bitten by a spider in a laboratory. The mutants in the X-Men comics develop all manner of special abilities when cosmic rays triggered their transformations. And Wolverine is not only a mutant, but one augmented by a metal skeleton and retracting claws. Tony Stark gains the powers of Iron Man when he dons his metal suit. There have been all variety of robots and cyborgs with special abilities over the years in the comics, as well as gods from the cosmos, and scientists whose devices enhanced their abilities, or allowed them to grow or shrink at will.

Humans with special or augmented abilities have been a theme throughout the history of science fiction, and because of the inherent attraction held by tales that fulfill our wishes to be something more, will continue to draw the attention of authors and readers far into the future.

 

Cobra

The book is episodic in nature, with two of the middle segments (among the most thought-provoking sections of the novel) having previously appeared in somewhat different form as short stories. The first segment, a straightforward description of boot camp, “Trainee,” opens as protagonist Jonny Moreau contends with bad news: The Dominion of Man, which encompasses about 70 solar systems, has been invaded by the alien Troft. A generation before, Jonny’s dad had fought against another alien race, the Minthisti, but despite his parents’ misgivings, Jonny visits the local recruiter and signs up, leaving behind his younger sister Gwen and brother Jame. The background is thin here, with a setting that doesn’t feel all that different from 20th Century Earth. In fact, Zahn tends to leave a lot of background details to the reader’s imagination, and we get very little idea of what Jonny’s home planet is like, or what he and the other characters look like. We follow Jonny through his basic training, where he has been selected for implantation with weapon systems that will make him a Cobra—an elite trooper intended to be deployed behind enemy lines on captured planets. Servos and bone laminations give him enhanced strength, his eyesight and hearing are heightened, and he receives fingertip lasers, an electrical discharge weapon called an arcthrower, two types of sonic weapons, and an anti-armor laser implanted in his left calf. On top of this, a battle computer has been implanted that overrides his natural reflexes in combat situations to speed his reaction time and ensure the best response. All this is powered by a nuclear reactor in his abdomen (something I found a bit unsettling to contemplate). During his training, he and some of his fellow soldiers go into town for some adventure, and one of them, Viljo, uses his Cobra enhancements to beat up some locals. He attempts to pin this on Jonny, but doesn’t realize that his enhancements keep a record of his actions, and Viljo is escorted from training in disgrace. I kept waiting for him to show up later, eager for revenge, but he never returned.

The second segment of the book, “Warrior,” takes place with Jonny and his teammates deployed behind enemy lines on the captured planet of Adirondack. Jonny is embedded with an ordinary family (although I kept wondering how he could successfully hide among normal people with a nuclear reactor in his belly). He is captured by the Troft, and the local commander decides to study him. They also put a young woman scavenger in the cell with him, which proves to be a mistake, because she is very familiar with the facility where they are being held. Zahn likes to put his protagonists into situations they have to think their way out of, and this is a perfect example of one of those literary set pieces. It also gives us a good example of how Jonny’s implanted technology can be utilized in a combat situation.

The third segment, “Veteran,” is actually the first part of the book to have been written by Zahn chronologically, and is much more thoughtful than the sections that precede it. Zahn looks at the implications of Jonny’s return from the recently completed war with most of his gear still implanted. The only weapons that remain are his fingertip lasers, but his strength, senses and reactions are still enhanced. He has trouble finding a job that will challenge him, and when some obnoxious teenagers threaten him, his automated responses result in their deaths. After that, even when he uses his special powers to rescue people from a burning building, no one is willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. And his situation is not unique, as the central government is trying to figure out what to do with the Cobras now that they are not needed in active combat. It is his brother, Jame, who comes up with a solution, recommending that the government send Cobras out to assist colonists on hostile frontier worlds.

The next segment, “Loyalist,” is another part of the book that had been previously published in story form, and takes a deeper look at the implications of the Cobras’ enhanced abilities. Jonny is assigned to the Aventine colony, where protecting colonists from hostile wildlife like spine leopards give the Cobras a meaningful role in society. But some Cobras decide that “might makes right,” insisting that their enhanced abilities give them the right to rule the normal human colonists. After the revolutionaries kill one of his friends while he looks on helplessly, Jonny decides his loyalties lie with the rule of law, and he helps the colonists defeat the renegade Cobras.

The segment “Politician” looks at Jonny later in his life, as his sister, Gwen, arrives as a new colonist on Aventine, along with his brother, Jame, who now serves as a junior bureaucrat. The government wants to move the Cobra enhancement and training facility to Aventine, where it can be used as a check on possible Troft actions. The government uses the odd and hostile behaviors of the large creatures called gantuas as a pretext for building the facility, but Jonny is suspicious that there is more going on behind the scenes. Jonny would rather see the Cobra program end, along with its sometimes-negative impacts on society, but must look at the proposal from a different perspective.

The final segment in the book, “Statesman,” picks up with Jonny now the governor of his colony, a married man with children. He is also noticing accelerated signs of aging, as his body has been adversely impacted by his implanted equipment. The Troft are on the move again, and it looks like war is brewing. When a governmental emissary is dismissive of Jonny’s ideas regarding negotiating with the Troft, Jonny takes matters into his own hands. His rash actions almost make the situation worse, but with his brother’s help, he is able to find a solution that will allow both sides to head off an unnecessary conflict. The ultimate warrior has grown beyond the desire to fight.

 

Final Thoughts

Cobra is a good, solid book that can be appreciated in a number of different ways. Each of its sections can stand alone as an independent adventure—there is action, there are problems to overcome, and there are mysteries to solve. But there is also a more thoughtful arc that connects all of the tales, with each of them examining a different aspect of enhancing humans for military purposes. Reading along, it is easy to see why Zahn has gone on to a long and productive writing career.

And now, I’ve had my say, and I’ll turn the floor over to the rest of you: What are your thoughts on Cobra, or any of Zahn’s other works? And what are your favorite examples of enhanced humans in science fiction?

Alan Brown has been a science fiction fan for over five decades, especially fiction that deals with science, military matters, exploration and adventure.

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