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Guest Post: Cybernarc

Cybernarc by Robert CainCybernarc #1 Harper Paperbacks, 1991 Price I paid: 1¢ + S&H

CYBERNARC He was created at the CIA’s secret Camp Perry research center. The CIA calls him ROD, a high-tech amalgam of of advanced robotics, artificial intelligence, painstaking cosmetics, and military hardware. ROD is all machine, but he can blend in with any human crowd. Assigned to the DEA and tagged Cybernarc by the press, he’s ready for action.

Note: This is a guest post from my friend and reader John Shanks, who found this book and just had to read and tell us all about it. I’m glad he did. I’ll be back on Sunday with another review. In the meantime, let’s see if we can’t get John to read and review the whole series.

I’m going to start this review with a trigger warning. Anyone with a particular sensitivity to the R-word should probably avoid this review and should definitely avoid this book. From the moment I spotted the third book in this series, subtitled Island Kill, while looking for The Penetrator in the action/adventure aisle of my local used bookstore, I knew I had an obligation to get it onto Schlock Value. As it turned out, online booksellers were as desperate to get rid of a copy of Cybernarc #1 as I was to read it. I love the style of this cover. It’s very… cyber. Low bit depth, no dithering, slightly unreal coloration. This is the aesthetic Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon was going for: the late ’80s/early ’90s sense that “the near future is going to be radical.” Speaking of the cover, I found it confusing until I described it out loud to Mr. Schlock Anderson (“Value is his middle name!”). We are looking at the Cybernarc, who is looking back at us, yet what we’re seeing superimposed over Mr. Narc’s head is Mr. Narc’s own targeting interface (nevermind that a robot would not need to project its data onto its visual field so that it would then be necessary to read floating text that the robot himself generated). So are we looking through the Cybernarc’s eyes, or are we looking at the Cybernarc? Well, why not both. The Cybernarc is looking into a mirror at his reflection. We are looking at him looking at us, only we are him. That’s a hell of a trick, cover. “The reader is the true Cybernarc.” Maybe if this were an ebook instead of a paperback. I have two other things to say about the cover, but I really want to get into the book proper. Maybe I can work them in organically later. As an aside, I am inherently unable to take cyber-anything seriously. Cyberspace? Goofy as heck way to say Internet. Cyberterrorism? Not at all terrifying. Cyberbullying? The dweeb probably deserves whatever he gets. Want proof? Compare these two terms, both of which refer to the same technology:

  • Teledildonics. I know what you’re thinking: revolutionary, wave of the future, ’round the corner, next Sunday A.D. way to get one’s jollies. Technology bringing people’s bits together.
  • Cyberdildonics. You are being chased by a wheeled robot with dildos instead of arms. You would order it to stop, but it also has dildos instead of ears. You would cry out for help, but frankly, an open mouth is probably a vulnerability you can’t afford right now.

“Cyber-” is what happens when someone from the present wants to sound like they’re talking about the future yet ends up sounding like someone from the past talking about the present. It is the five-letter essence of zeerust. Okay really for reals this time, let’s get into this book. Cybernarc purports to be the story of a cyborg narcotics officer, essentially the Robocop of drugs. But it’s not! You, dear reader, were undoubtedly—just as I was—taken in by the brazen lie that is this book’s title. He’s not a cyborg at all. He’s all “cyb-” and zero “-org.” No meat parts in this machine man. In fact, at one point his programmer has to explain the differences between cyborgs, robots, and androids to, like, a senator or something. I can’t be arsed to remember. Someone ineffectual, at any rate. What is also a lie is that the book Cybernarc is the story of the Cybernarc. While there is an android narc (doesn’t have the same ring, does it?), the real focus of our tale is Lieutenant Chris “Standard Action Hero Name” Drake, U.S. Navy SEAL. That doesn’t stop the first sentence of the first chapter from being “They called him Rod.” Not Drake, the robot. No one calls Drake “Rod.” Unless we’re talking about Drake the rapper, in which case, I dunno, maybe, but probably not I’d guess. But we’re not talking about Drake the rapper and likely never will on this site. They called the robot Rod because he was built by Project RAMROD, which stands for… sigh… Rand Artificially intelligent Military RObotic Device, and that is not how acronyms work, book. To its credit, however, that is probably the kind of poopstank backronym the actual U.S. government would come up with. Your tax dollars at work. And yes, it is Rand as in the Rand Corporation. But not the real-life RAND Corporation, which has its own fecal-level acronym to account for. (Seriously, Research ANd Development? You could have been the RAD Corporation, but instead you’re both wrong and not rad.) But Rod is not the only nickname the Project RAMROD robot will receive during the course of this book. Oh no. Just you wait. So DARPA and RandCo wanted a “combat robot” to replace teenagers in Vietnam. The DOD budget fell through in the ’80s, so the DEA snagged the prototype for use in The Drug War. What they got is a computer way more powerful than an Apple II (yes, this was explicitly mentioned) wrapped up in the disturbingly realistic body of a naked white man. The team went to great lengths (heh) to ensure that Rod could pass as a human, going as far as giving him a convincing rod. The book stops short (heh) of telling us whether or not Rod was created circumcised, or showing us that he is fully functional like Data. My money is on “erection subroutines were essential in allowing him to pass as human in case a middle school public speaking situation were to arise.” Heh. Arise. Oh, during our introduction to RAMROD in the Prologue, one of the (male) scientists hijacks Rod’s visual system to make him look at the only female scientist’s bosom, which is then displayed on monitors all over the lab. We seriously get the word nipple on page 2. It set me up with certain expectations that the book… didn’t exactly meet. That lady scientist, while I’m thinking about it, at first seemed like she was placed solely for Drake [not the rapper] to bed at some point, either as part of a lame romantic subplot or just because the author needed to show us just how damn manly Drake [not the rapper] is. However, this never happened (at least not in Book One of the series). Turns out she was the lead robot scientist on an impressive secret government project… who just happens to be a woman. I guess I didn’t give the author enough credit. Speaking of whom, the back of the book has an “about the author” page. Pretty normal, right? Well, the entirety of this one is as follows:

Robert Cain is the pseudonym of an author who lives in Pennsylvania.

That’s it. So we know it’s a fake name because the book tells us. And we know who the author really is because Internet. Robert Cain is the name William H. Keith, Jr. used for the Cybernarc series. I was surprised to learn he was also responsible for much of the early Traveller universe. His website explains that he wrote all six Cybernarc books to put food on his family’s table. I can respect that. He also mentions the original pitch for the series, where a “whacked-out Vietnam vet” builds the anti-drug combat robot in his basement. Keith himself is a Vietnam veteran (of unspecified whacked-out-edness), which explains why he didn’t exactly latch on to that character archetype. So instead we have a budding buddy cop story where the sidekick/new guy on the force is a motherflipping combat robot. But it doesn’t start out that way, and in fact I didn’t suspect it would happen until about halfway through the book, but by the end, no doubt about it: buddy cop with android sidekick. The reason I didn’t suspect we’d get to this formula is twofold. Fold the first: The title of the book ain’t The Wacky Adventures of a Rebellious Cop and His By-the-Book Android Partner Who Together Fight in the War on Drugs. That’s way too long and unwieldy. No, the title doesn’t even mention Drake [or the rapper], which made me think solo robo storo story. Fold the second: The early chapters are all about implanting Drake’s [not the rapper’s] memories and Combat Instincts into Rod. That is, when they’re not all about what Drake [not the rapper] gets up to as a badass SEAL. So it looks like we’ve got two paddles (plots) taking turns (chapters) bouncing a white square (yours truly) back and forth, and what I’ve just done is made a Pong metaphor while also describing myself in an unflattering manner. The two plots are Drake [guess which] doing SEAL stuff and RAMROD putting the finishing touches on Rod. Initially the only commonality between the two was Drake [the rapper this time!], but I expected they’d merge soon enough. And they did. What I did not expect was how rapey the merge would be. So to learn about the unteachable Combat Instincts that only the best soldiers have, the kind of sixth-sense “this feels wrong” conglomeration of subconscious signals that could mean the difference between life and death on the battlefield, Rod gets to experience Drake’s [hey] most vivid memory of said instinct. They hook the two up, Rod with a cable into his torso and Drake [how you doin’] with a helmet made of wires and Science, and roll tape. Turns out it’s a memory of a time when Drake’s [come here often] unit had to be super still in order to avoid giving away their position prematurely which meant not intervening when a group of enemy guards raped and murdered some women just to pass the time/to celebrate/for the hell of it. One of the guards came toward Drake [what are you having] to wee in the bushes, and the only reason the guy didn’t spot Drake [can I get you another] is because Drake [I love this song] thought real hard about being a rock. So that is what Rod learns I guess? We quickly get to see just how amazing Drake’s [care to dance] Combat Instincts are when he goes home. He gets the creepy-crawly feeling that something is wrong as he’s headed toward the door, but he for no goddamn reason fails to act on it. He was just presented as the poster child for believing in and being capable of Feats of Instinct, and because the story needed a reason for his mission against a drug lord to Get Personal™, he gets unbelievably stupid for a second. Turns out it’s a mistake that’s going to probably maybe possibly haunt him for the rest of his life. The rest of the book for sure. He gets conked on the noggin. Drug thugs are inside his house. They have his wife and teenage daughter. You can guess where this is going. At least they don’t force him to watch as they take turns raping his family. He’s tied up in another room, being guarded by a single thug. But he frees himself, kills the thug who was too busy doing coke to do his job (remember: War on Drugs), and grabs a gun. What’s next just sucks. He bursts into the room with the gross noises coming from it and shoots the bad guys square in the life. As one dies, his finger clamps down on the trigger of the gun he was holding because I guess he only needed one hand for whatever he was up to, and as he falls to the floor, his bullets manage—improbably—to kill both women instantly. This was the part where I got mad. At this point, I felt like Cain/Keith couldn’t think of any way to show that a bad guy was truly a Bad Guy other than to resort to rape. What’s worse, he was willing to throw down the big R but didn’t want to deal with having to write the (I imagine quite) difficult character of a rape survivor. Instead, his rapes are always fatal. In the case of the wife and teenage daughter, the hero had to save them because we couldn’t be shown an impotent hero, but they also could not be allowed to survive because if they did, we’d spend chapters dealing with physical and psychological trauma and its impact on a marriage and an adolescence and parenting when what we’re supposed to be focusing on is a stupid fucking robot. And the worst part is that the deaths are so convenient, so coincidental, so contrived. Honestly, I put the book down for at least a week after this part. I was just sick of it. This was also the only part of the book I didn’t enjoy, so that’s saying something. I mean, the stretches in two consecutive chapters where someone’s internal monologue leads into a four-page-long encyclopedia entry on the War on Drugs—nearly the same bland facts (United States cocaine sales in 1990 surpassed $CAS.H billion) came from the thoughts of two different characters, one of whom was an actual drug lord. Those stretches weren’t great, although taken together I found it kind of hilarious to think of these two star-crossed lovers thinking the same dull thoughts while perhaps looking at the same moon, separated only by thousands of miles and the fact that they are on opposite sides of the flipping drug war. So anyway, our hero is understandably shaken up by events. In fact, he tries to take his own life. And what does his government do to help? It offers him the chance to Get Even in a way no other person ever has or ever will again. Turns out the procedure Drake [did you have a good time] and Rod went through earlier was a Chekov’s Slideshow of Memories. Now Rod can access Drake’s [me too] memories of that tragic evening and produce printouts of the bad guys’ faces for identification, and all it will cost is Drake [we should do this again] being forced to relive the worst day of his life in greater detail than any human naturally can. Whoopee. Luckily, this memory-flavored double-dipped cybertrauma in a waffle cone leads to an actual goddamn clue: It just so happens that the never-seen-him-at-the-office-before DEA agent with the Colombian-sounding name who sent Drake [so can I get your number] on the less-than-successful undercover mission at the start of the book is… wait for it… a Colombian national and senior officer in a drug cartel. If only we screened these guys as a standard part of the hiring process! If only we had flipped the book over and noticed the mugshots of the double agent along with his aliases and a three-line synopsis in his government dossier that firmly establishes his ties with the very people we’re hiring him to fight against. If only.

future reference for all you hackers: the FBI database password is LOLITA

future reference for all you hackers: the FBI database password is LOLITA

Not reeling from this staggering breach of security so much as lining the cloud with the silvery skin of a metal man (actually Rod’s synthetic skin can pass as human under all but the most invasive inspection) (note to self: look into taking metaphor classes down at the community college), the DEA loads Drake [why not] and Rod into a limo with the senator and some bodyguards and proceeds with haste into Washington, D.C. What happens next is a thoroughly badass action sequence. As the limo crosses a bridge, Rod calculates that the odds are high that an ambush is about to go down. He doesn’t have time to issue a warning via inefficient humanocentric auditory stimuli because—turns out his calculations were correct—the nondescript black cars in front of and behind the senator’s limo screech to a stop just as thugs on motorcycles box them in from the sides. What was sure to be a barrel/fish scenario quickly takes a turn for the insane, however, when Rod gets his first trial by (gun)fire. I don’t want to stretch this review out further with a play-by-play of the scene (Really I do. I so do), so I’ll give you a highlight reel.

  • Rod opens the limo door by kicking it completely off, turning it into a projectile that disables one bike.
  • In stepping out of the car, he finds himself within cyberarm’s reach of a behelmented thug’s ill-fated face. Fingers flying in the patented “The Claw” formation, he shoves his hand through the helmet visor and crushes the skull of the rider against the back wall of the helmet. Remember, kids: helmets cannot protect you from impacts if you let the robot man inside with you.
  • Because his cyberpunch is so dang powerful, he sheers the crushed skull off the rider’s torso. For those playing the home game, you may now equip your Project RAMROD android with the +5 Boxing Glove of Mutilated Biker Assassin Remains. If you also chose the Bowling skill during character creation, you now get the “I Make My Own Holes” Perk for free with any object you attempt to use as a bowling ball. Oh, and then Rod uses one rider’s punch-crushed and punch-severed head to punch-crush a second rider’s face.
  • At some point in the fight he takes a gun from a bad guy he killed. It fires a few shots, killing another bad guy, before jamming. Rod’s reaction is to throw the gun so hard at a target’s chest that it breaks ribs and launches the poor sod over the bridge railing and down into the Potomac.
  • To clean up the remaining ambushers, Rod returns to the bike he tipped over when “opening” the car door. Ripping the front wheel completely free of the forks, he hurls it like a Frisbee® over the tops of the cars, totally jacking up a dude’s mug. Righteous.

Okay that’s actually most of the fight scene. But really it’s all highlights. Just a few too-brief pages of finally getting to see the promise of robot badassitude fulfilled. And it was so sweet. I forget where Drake [really] was during this sequence. Probably stuck in the limo just like he’s stuck inside his inefficient fleshy shell. So we have a scene of carnage on this bridge, and nearby motorists have ceased running for their lives and are now switching to Morbid Curiosity Mode. Turns out two of the civilians on the bridge just happen to be members of the press. One incredulously asks Rod if he is human, to which Rod replies no, he is in fact a top secret drug war robot. He does this, it is later sussed out, because no one ever programmed him to be able to lie. Well there goes all your hard work toward making sure he can blend in with humans! What I found funny about this development is that apparently no one programmed Rod to know what the definition of “secret” is. Dude, Rod, it’s not lying to omit top secret details. You ain’t under oath here. So the word gets out that the DEA has a combat robot. I have to say, while I expected this to become a plot point eventually, my money was on Book Four of the hexalogy. The reporters, not understanding the nuanced distinction between androids and cyborgs, dub Rod CYBERNARC. They do this to sell papers. I have to admit, book, that you found a clever way to get the eye-catching title of the series into the story without making anyone in the story idiotic enough to seriously use the term. Well played. Turns out the ambush was a result of someone in Senator Ineffectual’s office being on the take. Some cops or something nab the pipsqueak off-camera and that gets us our final lead: fake DEA agent Esposito has fled to Colombia to take refuge in the very same drug lord compound that he led Drake [since when] to at the start of the book. Looks like Cybernarc: The Movie is coming in under budget! Another infiltration mission is planned, only this time, It’s Pers—wait. I thought the rapes were there to make It Personal™ for Drake [well I don’t think so]. Couldn’t the betrayal by one of “their own” have been enough, author? Well whatever. Let’s finish this. Rod’s body is switched from his “Civilian Mod” to his “Combat Mod,” which is like going from wearing your birthday suit to wearing a shiny black Guts Man onesie and the Juggernaut’s helmet. This is done by removing his head and spinal column where the Real Rod lives and socketing them into a new torso. He’s basically the Borg Queen. I’m sad to report that these are the only two “Mods” we’re told about or shown in the book, but I’m holding out hope that sequels will expand on the promise of mission-tailored bodies. I do want to take one last aside, however, to mention a typo on the front cover of the book. The term “COMBAT MOD” is visible in red, and we know that one of Rod’s switchable bodies is called his “Combat Mod.” However, the boot-up sequence we are shown through rod’s own visual processing orbs tells us that the visual overlay should read COMBAT MODE: STAND BY. Mode, not Mod. “Couldn’t the cover be accurate and the typo be in the text instead?” you ask. Here’s the thing: during the boot-up sequence, Rod is socketed into his Civilian Mod, not his Combat Mod. We know this because the author tries his best to tell us that rod has a realistic penis without coming out and saying it like I just did. The mode/Mod thing is an easy mistake to make, the terms being almost identical, but it’s the kind of thing that I get hung up on. Back to the mission, which fills the final third of the book. The seven newly-introduced human SEALs are given first and last names, but only two have nicknames: Matt “Zit” Zitterman and Carl “Hoss” Hoskins, because Lazy Squad apparently couldn’t figure out how to shorten Campano, Saylor, Carter, Isaacson, or Yancey. Those last five must feel really left out when Rod is given two nicknames during training at a real actual place called Dam Neck and on the sub ride over. And what nicknames they are! Bot and… Rambot. Audible sigh. Guys. These… these have to be the laziest military nicknames I’ve ever heard. Seriously. Were you all sick that day during Basic? You are an embarrassment to your country. Their sub launches the eight humans and one oversized combat robot toward shore inside two smaller subs, and at this point I expected a character to try to pass his thick Scottish brogue off as Russian. But they come ashore at night after being firmly told by the sub commander that he ain’t picking their asses up afterward. A short jungle walk later, presented for your convenience in multi-spectrum Robo-Vision, and our heroes (and their seven recently-introduced buddies) are at the drug lord compound. And that’s when shit goes down. Just like they’ve been one step ahead this whole time, the druggists know the SEALs are coming. The firefight starts as our boys silently touch down after climbing over the compound wall. It’s a bad scene: pinned against the wall, flat on their stomachs and trying to use shrubs for cover. A few get shot, but not Drake [fine]. There are floodlights and a pair of Mowag Rolands with mounted M2 machine guns. I think Hoss dies. Rod’s extensive training library says basically “screw this noise” and he stands up, ignoring orders to stay down. Small arms fire bounces off him. Before one of the M2 turrets can swivel toward him, he (Usain) Bolts toward it, hops atop the Roland, and shoves his hands all up in that business. As the poor schlubs inside scream, he rips the turret off and just one-hands that sucker from the hip. We now have a hulking combat robot standing on an APC and wielding a .50 caliber machine gun. And dude has a free hand. I don’t think I need to say that the best stuff that happens in the compound fight is all Rod. Drake [I said I’m fine] does manage to save Rod from an RPG to the chest by shoving a dude into the exhaust end of the launch tube, but Rod gets to barge in on the drug lord’s bedroom and be hilariously robo-courteous to a pair of terrified naked prostitutes. At some point Rod runs out of ammo for the Ma Deuce and straight chucks it at the other Roland. Just skewers it. Esposito-if-that-is-his-real-name (it’s not) is caught and he and Drake [do whatever you want] have an intense knives-to-throats standoff until Battle Damage Rod strides over, easily lifts Esposito by the neck, and looks him in the eye. We get a great description of the torn face skin (he removed his Juggernaut helmet when a stray bullet cracked its sensor array), the glowing green eye of night vision, and the completely emotionless way he repeats the Badass One-Liner Esposito said to Drake [I don’t care] way earlier in the book: “It’s nothing personal.” Then Rod increases hand pressure on Espo’s neck, and the traitor falls unconscious. Our boys gather up their wounded and flee the compound, heading for their extraction point. The plan is to stand on a bald saddle between two mountain peaks and use a skyhook, but it’ll take more than one pass to get everybody. The wounded are picked up first, then Drake [bye], then Rod, who calculates that his Combat Mod is too heavy for the winch. I expected him to eject from it and look like a robot tadpole on the end of a fishing line, but instead he removes his legs and just leaves them there in Colombia. Like one does. When Drake [hey, I’m home] gets hauled aboard the plane, a gun is shoved in his face. It’s Senator Ineffectual! He’s how drugs have been getting into the U.S. despite the best efforts of the DEA! They stop the winch from pulling Rod the rest of the way up, thinking that it’ll be enough to keep a legless combat robot from saving the goddamned day. They thought wrong. Rod proceeds to just hand-over-hand his way up the cable, because of course he does. When he gets close enough to the C-130’s open cargo door to see what’s going down inside, he realizes he has to do something now before the senator (drug codename: Diamond) executes Drake [no, just me]. We know he’s good at throwing stuff, like the Uzi and the motorcycle wheel from the bridge ambush and the freaking M2 from the compound, so it comes as no surprise that his circuits tell him to find something to throw. Rod uses his right hand to unscrew his left. He lets loose with, and I quote: “a lump of steel literally the size of his fist.” Props to the author on using “literally” in both a correct and hilarious manner. (And I hope Rod gets to use a breadbox as a weapon in one of the sequels.) His aim is true, insofar as he “punches” Diamond in the neck so hard that the breaking of bone is audible outside the plane. Then Drake [I’m going to bed] reels him in. His power levels are dropping to dangerous levels at this point, because we hadn’t used that trope yet, so we get shouts of “Rod! Can you hear me?” and some “Thank you for saving my life” and stuff like that. Then Rod, with his power reserves depleted, utters:

“It looked like… you needed… a… hand…”

Phenomenal. The epilogue tells us that although Drake [night] and Rod scored a victory in the War on Drugs, this was only one family cartel. There are more out there, and there are more adventures for both Navy SEAL Chris Drake and his partner, Rod “Bot” Rambot. The book ends with the line “…with the help of a robot called Cybernarc.” And that is exactly what I wanted from it when I saw the title. In all, I’d say CYBERNARC #1 successfully did what it needed to do. I was entertained by the story of a man and a machine fighting side by side in the War on Drugs, the humor was infrequent enough that it had more impact than a wall-to-wall robot jokes comedy, the action sequences were well-written and X-TREME, and the author was able to use the money he earned to feed his family. My only complaint is that it was so rapey in the first half. Maybe the sequels are less so. I can’t wait to find out.


2 Comments

  1. Joseph Nebus says:

    I am so delighted that so much of this book lives up to the hopes raised by the cover. Thanks.

    Like

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