January is Vintage Sci-Fi Month and I’m hoping to feature a number of looks at vintage sci-fi I’m reading for the month to spur some discussion and hear your thoughts! Follow Vintage Sci-Fi Month on Twitter and get in on the fun, too! As I recall, the rule for calling something “Vintage” is that it was written before you were born, but feel free to adjust that as you like.
Cobra by Timothy Zahn
I ended up buying the omnibus edition of the Cobra Trilogy at Manticon 2015, where I met Zahn, David Weber (my favorite author), Eric Flint, and others. I got it signed while I was there, and for about 5 years it has languished on my TBR pile. But, having had the rare experience of exhausting my library pile before my weekly trip, I delved into some books I owned for once! With it being Vintage sci-fi month, I figured I’d check out Cobra, published in 1986.
Honestly, the premise didn’t really strike me as anything terribly exciting. A super soldier fights against enemies–it’s a standard trope of science fiction that’s made many an appearance. Of course, I’m a pretty big fan of military sci-fi, so I tend to gravitate this trope and others like it. But when I actually began reading the book, it became quickly apparent that the premise isn’t really what the book is about at all.
Jonny Moreau is a likable enough main character to whom we are introduced as he struggles with the question of whether to enlist or not. He quickly does, and suddenly finds himself slated to become a Cobra, a new kind of super soldier with heightened abilities to go along with a nanocomputer to help analyze and react to threats and a body built to suit it. Jonny expects to be deployed as a kind of undercover insurgent in advance of invading enemies, and we as readers go along assuming that’s what the book will then end up being about. But, again, it’s not. Just as Jonny is about to get involved in some serious war, witnessing glimpses here and there, we jump ahead years and instead see Jonny trying to cope with his memories back home. He tries to strike it back up with his girlfriend, he tries to find jobs, but he is ostracized as a freak due to his, well, freakish abilities having been a Cobra. He can’t blend in anywhere.
But it turns out the human government has a plan! They’ve made a deal with their alien enemies to colonize on the other side of their space, going through a narrow corridor the Trofts grudgingly open in order to get there. And who do they decide would be the perfect colonists? None other than the already super-adapted Cobra soldiers! Off they go! Thought you were reading a military sci-fi novel? Now you’re reading one about colonization. But there are more surprises in store because some Cobra units go rogue and try to set up their own government, then the Troft close off the corridor, and the crap hits the fan. Suddenly the Cobra have their own civilization that is set apart from the human Dominion of Man, and that’s pretty much where we end after a whirlwind of events set over more than a decade.
Honestly, this book is maybe 20% about being a super soldier and 40% about dealing with the stress and life that comes with being such a soldier with another 40% about the colonization of a new planet/government intrigue. PTSD (implied), trying to cope with the horrors of war that has home, questions of political loyalties: these are just a few of the heady topics Zahn brings up in Cobra. He does so in typical Zahn fashion, though, moving along with the action such that some of the most emotionally impactful moments go by very quickly. That’s probably the biggest weakness in Cobra: so much happens and it moves so quickly that readers aren’t able to fully appreciate or grasp the horror of Jonny’s life at points.
But it is there. All the pieces are in place. As a reader, you can see the horror, feel the awfulness of some of the situations, and sympathize with Jonny as it happens. Zahn does not quite pull the trigger on making the book entirely a commentary on the horrors of war, but it’s all there. It just gets a bit glorified towards the end with the colonization happening, but even there it is all imperfect, a little weird, and ambiguous. Zahn’s strength is in making compelling characters, and that certainly comes through in this book, but his unwillingness to fully embrace what seems like a core part of the book–the questions facing a super soldier with nothing to do–undermines the power of the book somewhat.
Having read Cobra, I’m left feeling a bit confused, to be honest. Looking back on it, I’d say it is an engaging read. It does not quite live up to the potential of some of the ideals Zahn hints at throughout, but it keeps the pages turning even as your brain is working to catch up with the themes and action. I enjoyed Cobra quite a bit and will definitely be reading the rest of the trilogy. I’d recommend it to readers who are looking to go off the beaten path in their military sci-fi reading.
J.W. Wartick- Always Have a Reason– Check out my “main site” which talks about philosophy of religion, theology, and Christian apologetics (among other random topics). I love science fiction so that comes up integrated with theology fairly frequently as well. I’d love to have you follow there, too!
My Read-Through of the Hugos– Check out all my posts on reading through the Hugo Award winners and nominees. Tons of sci-fi fantasy discussion throughout.
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