Monday, March 22, 2010

Cyborgs with nothing to show for it

kw: book reviews, science fiction, space fiction, space aliens, cyborgs

I have not read any of Timothy Zahn's "Cobra" series (published 1985-88), so for me Cobra Alliance, the first of the "Cobra War" series, had to stand alone. That it did; there is enough backstory and fill-in to eliminate the sense of creeping anomaly so often found in later "series" books.

For those who are familiar with the older books, these continue with a new generation. The cyborg warriors known as Cobras are being pushed aside by a political generation that can't understand the expense. But a crisis is developing that will prove their worth. This novel is, then, primarily setting up that situation, and it ends in a brief lull between one battle and another.

I am most intrigued by the Cobras themselves. They are greatly enhanced humans, engineered to look no different from non-Cobras, to suit their role as infiltrators and guerrilla fighters. Their capabilities are gradually unfolded as the story progresses, and include:
  • Antipersonnel lasers in the index fingers.
  • An anti-armor laser in the calf of one leg.
  • Ceramic inserts in the weight-bearing skeleton.
  • Servomotors at key joints to enhance speed and strength.
  • A nanocomputer in the braincase for targeting, reflex enhancement, and coordination.
  • A sonic disruptor that can both disable opponents and scramble surveillance devices.
  • A "stun gun" electrostatic weapon.
  • Enhanced sight and hearing.
These things come at a cost; few Cobras (who survive combat) live beyond sixty years, at a time that 90-100-year life spans are pretty standard. On another human world, a different technology, largely external, has produced somewhat lesser capabilities in fighters called Djinn (plural; singular is Djinni). Their finger/glove lasers are more powerful, but they lack leg lasers, for example.

The energetics of Cobra cyborgs are problematic. I don't recall reading of a means for accumulating power so that the leg laser can run for an extended time without seriously harming—or enervating—the Cobra. A trained human can supply half a horsepower (~400W) of energy for minutes at a time, but metal-cutting lasers similar to those used in the steel industry are multi-kilowatt devices. They are also bigger than the average shinbone (tibia).

The Alliance of the title is that between the Cobras and the Djinn, which very gradually develops as the latter learn to overcome the prejudices of a generation or two who grew up thinking of the Cobras as enemies. They are eventually forced together in combination against invading Troft, birdlike aliens intent on recovering losses sustained in the wars detailed in the earlier trilogy. This partially-formed alliance seeks help from more populated planets as the novel ends, setting the scene for Cobra Guardian, due out some months from now.

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