Thursday, April 07, 2011

The limits of human enhancement

kw: book reviews, science fiction, space fiction, space aliens, space warfare, battle suits

In Cobra Guardian, the second book of the Cobra War trilogy, Timothy Zahn presents not one, but two ways to make a super-warrior. The drama revolves around Cobras, men and women implanted with servomechanisms for extra strength and speed, enhanced senses of hearing and vision, and a variety of laser, electrical and sonic weaponry. These make a single Cobra roughly the equivalent of an Abrams tank. It required the might of hundreds of Cobras to defeat a warlike branch of the Trofts, some of whom are more inclined to get ahead by trade and treaties, while others prefer conquest. The Tlossies are a Troft demesne of traders who are allies of humans, but reluctant to go to war against other Trofts on our behalf.

A sometime rival planet of humans, denied knowledge of Cobra technology, has developed warriors they call Djinni, who wear external robotic strength-enhancing and sense-enhancing technology and weaponry that makes them quite equal to Cobras, and in certain ways even more deadly.

In the middle of the mix is the planet Caelian, which has fascinating biology. In a ramped-up Darwinian system, the plants are bad enough, but even the mildest animals are downright nasty. "Flossies" look a little like sheep, though their curly pelt is more like steel wool. A large contingent of Cobras is required to guard the ordinary humans on the planet, a never-ending assignment.

On the other four planets that host Cobras, though, they are seen as anachronisms. It has been a few decades since the warlike Trofts were beaten back, and they are being seen as an unneeded expense. Politicians argue "austerity measures" that include cutbacks in Cobra funding. Then Troft warships attack all five Cobra-bearing planets.

As it happens, unknown to the Trofts, automated surgical machinery has been developed that can reduce the time needed to augment a human to Cobra in five days, and in another breakthrough, cognitive-enhancement drugs enable them to be trained in just a few more days. If the allied worlds can beat back the Troft invasion long enough to produce a few hundred new Cobras, they can win this phase of the Troft wars.

I was most fascinated by the extreme biology of Caelian. It is a wonder anything stays alive. Wind-blown plant spores turn any organic material into a green forest of rapidly-growing, and carnivorous, plants. That includes the clothes you are wearing, but fortunately not your own skin (while you are alive). Once a few plants take hold, insects follow, and they all seem to be hungry for blood. Bigger animals follow the insects, and if you don't keep the plants scraped off your clothing, you will soon be eaten by the bigger bugs and their predators. Then there are the larger predators; anything over ten pounds in size will gladly take on a human.

The humans on the planet have developed a silicon-based fabric called silliweave that denies the plants a foothold, as long as they keep plant spores wiped or scraped off it regularly (blown-in dirt can feed the plants—and it is always windy). That's a chemical technology I find interesting. What they really need is some way to keep the plant spores from gaining that first foothold, even if a little dirt has blown onto a garment. They are working on that…

I find Caelian more plausible than Cobra or Djinn, however. The energy source for their acrobatics is left unstated. An armor piercing laser hidden in a leg bone (or alongside it) needs to dissipate a few megawatts, if briefly. Even a "fingertip" laser that can zap mere mortals will cook the finger in which it operates. And jumping ten or twenty meters, straight up? I'll wait until I see it. Of course, these capabilities make for some truly rollicking fight scenes.

The book ends with an opening for Cobra Gamble, due out in another year or so. In that book the author will have to bring together all the threads laid out so nicely for us in this one.

No comments: