Review by C.J. Bunce
Cyborg, by Martin Caidin, is the 1972 novel that was adapted into the television series The Six Million Dollar Man. Long out of print, it is only available today via libraries or used online bookstores. I managed to track down a copy via Amazon.com for only a few dollars. My assumption was that this would be a dated story, but that it could be similar to the novels that it claimed to be like in its cover statement “In the explosive tradition of the The Andromeda Strain and Terminal Man.” Both The Andromeda Strain and Terminal Man were by Michael Crichton, and having enjoyed both of those years ago I figured this was worth a try. I was more than happy with this book.
First, it is a medical thriller more than a dramatic work of science fiction. Cyborg focuses on the details of witnessing the crash of a NASA stunt vehicle and an Air Force emergency response team’s reaction to a man who barely survived such a crash. More than anything I have read before, this absolutely reads like an early Michael Crichton novel, including his way of incorporating scientific details, but not too much detail to bore the reader. Cyborg has characters you care about, characters dropped into strange circumstances made very real.
Caidin’s description of the crash was as an eye-witness of sorts, and the first three chapters read like nonfiction. Written before the space shuttle program, this type of mission reflected real missions of the time between the days of Apollo and the shuttle program, honing the technology leading to the first real mission with Space Shuttle Columbia. Shockingly, the crash scene is like a foreseen account of the actual real-life disaster of the Columbia space shuttle. The gritty realism of the first three chapters sets up the reader for a believable entry into the un-real that follows.
Colonel Steve Austin is a stunt pilot who had already served as astronaut on the last moon mission, the last man to walk the surface of the moon. Waiting to go off as an astronaut on some Skylab mission he is now at a Mojave Desert test launch, which is vividly described. Jan Richards is his girlfriend, all too familiar with being the spouse of an astronaut and the circumstances that come about on launch days, and although she has been there before, she is still nervous. We learn quickly that Colonel Austin is a stunt pilot every bit like the Chuck Yeager as detailed in Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff. He is confident if not cocky. Like Han Solo, in response to his girlfriend’s “I love you, Steve Austin,” he responds, “Same here.”
The fact that author Martin Caidin actually participated in the real-life NASA counterpart to the program in which Austin crashes adds a heightened realism to the novel. Caidin was on site when a pilot suffered a similar terrible accident–the same type of disaster that aired at the beginning of each Six Million Dollar Man episode and makes up the first part of the novel.
Steve Austin, seriously injured as a triple amputee, gets not prosthetics, but improved-upon artificial limbs and an artificial eye. But first we get accounts of medical triage, a play by play account of the cutting off of Austin’s blood loss, the overall success of protecting the body from burns because of the NASA flight suit, loss of both his legs and left arm, loss of eye through metal debris in the cockpit, skull damage, jaw damage, skin damage, assessment of respiratory damage, standard procedures from placing the intubation tube to removing the space suit from what remains of his body.
Doctor Milton Ashburn, head of emergency response, after hours go by, finally utters the words “He’ll live.” But then all the conflict and story begins, starting from the lowest of places: “If you love that man like I do… then pray that he dies.”
If you’ve seen people recovering from surgeries, it is all about pain and lots of recuperation time. It’s what I thought was missing for the first third of the book, then Caidin goes into detail about nerve endings and compensation for missing limbs. To the layman even in 2012 it all seems to make sense. Instead of brushing over the details of creating a cybernetic organism–a cyborg–he details all the processes and only in the last 20 percent of the novel do we get to the reason the government is willing to pay $6 million to keep this one man alive, and more than that, make him superhuman. It is of course to make him a super soldier.
As storytelling is concerned, Cyborg is part Wolfe’s The Right Stuff, part Crichton’s Jurassic Park and Sphere, part Isaac Asimov’s Fantastic Voyage. There is something exciting when a team of experts in varying fields come together to achieve some purpose that no one initially believes will work. It’s the formula that worked so well several times for Michael Crichton.
The second third of the novel brings the realization that this in a real and thoughtful sense is a modern retelling of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, only it is the story you can imagine a young 19th century author wanted to tell, as she obviously thought this type of medicine would be possible one day. As the science is concerned, if it was not exactly possible to do in 1972, it certainly could be more possible today. Despite the fact that this was written before the pervasiveness of computing, Caidin includes many references to computers, to micro-electronics that would one day be microchips, and bionics that would one day become the beginning of nanotechnology.
Once we get past months of recovery, recuperation, and therapy, and Austin getting to know his new body and abilities, the last third of the novel is a cross between Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October and Clear and Present Danger mixed with any number of 1960s military intelligence operation stories, like The Guns of Navarone. First Austin goes on a deep-sea mission, using mechanical dolphins, off the coast of Surinam. He then moves on to a desert mission in North Africa–a Seal Team Six type operation mixed with a True Lies international arms story where Austin teams with an Israeli soldier named Tamara. The ending is about survival, and whereas Austin upon learning of his triple amputee state remarked that the doctors should have let him die, when he finally is left in a hopeless situation he learns he really wants to stay alive.
Great survival references are included in the final chapters including a bit about the real-life B-24 bomber downed decades ago in the desert called the Lady Be Good (documented in an episode of the History Channel’s History’s Mysteries in the 1990s).
Cyborg is surprisingly not dated considering it was written in 1972. There is the odd focus on male-female relationships reflecting 1970s men-women workplace relations, but nothing as cringeworthy as I’ve read in 1950s pulp novels. It probably helps that Caidin doesn’t spend any time on things like clothing descriptions, the very thing that makes the TV series a bit hard to watch today.
I’ve had the fortune of meeting and talking to three of the 12 surviving United States Apollo program astronauts who flew to the moon, and their confidence and character were well mimicked by Caidin’s account of the fictional Colonel Austin. Clearly Caidin spent time with these guys in real life, and it is reflected in his book.
Cyborg is a great candidate for re-issue. The TV series opening episodes follow the novel very well, with only the most minor of differences, like which arm that is lost and replaced. It was also good to see that Phil Hester and Kevin Smith’s Bionic Man comic book series, which we review here periodically, is faithful to the spirit of both the series and novel, although it takes more of the TV series changes on in its monthly story.