Hello, friends! Today we have a very special post, a guest post! Constant readers might remember Philip Stiff as being the blesséd soul who sent me the Star Quest books at the end of 2015. It seems he’s found something of his own to review. Something that, I have to admit, I’m jealous I didn’t find first. I hope you enjoy his review as much as I do.
What on Earth…
Cris Holman’s world is turned inside out when insectlike aliens attack and destroy his hometown, murdering his family and his friends.
Motivated by vengeance, Cris volunteers to become a Cyborg Commando, a new breed of soldiers who allow their brains to be removed from their bodies and placed inside computer-operated fighting machines specially designed to combat and conquer the alien menace.
As Cris Holman’s body lies in cryogenic storage, the new Cris is dispatched to help defend the planet – before all of mankind becomes subjugated to the awful plans of the aliens. He and others like him are Earth’s best defense…and its last hope.
The complete title of this 1987 Ace paperback is Gary Gygax’s Cyborg Commando™ – Book 1 – Planet in Peril. In terms of background, Gary Gygax was the co-creator of Dungeons & Dragons and was largely responsible for the phenomenon of role-playing games. Gamers tend to revere him and his name is a selling point. Therefore his name is prominently displayed on the cover even though he is not the author. The book is “Based on an original concept by Gary Gygax.” In the mid-eighties, due to boardroom politics, Gygax was forced out of the company that owned and published Dungeons & Dragons – a company he co-founded. Planet in Peril is a tie-in to Gygax’s post-D&D project, the Cyborg Commando™ Science Fiction Role-Playing Game. Thus, we do not have schlock for its own sake, but ‘schlock as marketing’ instead. The credited authors are Pamela O’Neill and Kim Mohan. It seems the only foray into science fiction by either author is the Cyborg Commando™ trilogy; the reading public should be grateful. Mohan’s strengths are in being an editor and essayist; among his credits, he worked as the editor of Dragon (an RPG magazine) and Amazing Stories. Whatever strengths O’Neill may have are in another field entirely.
The back cover description is refreshingly accurate; there are no errors of commission or omission. There’s an alien invasion and human volunteers undergo an experimental scientific process in order to fight the aliens. This could be the basis of a good plot. (In fact, it’s the basis of Strikeforce: Morituri which Marvel Comics started publishing in 1986. I’m not implying that Planet in Peril copied Morituri, but I am saying Morituri was much better written.) As the back cover indicates, the aliens are “insectlike.” They are also big; the first examples the protagonist sees are 10′ x 15′. The “awful plans of the aliens” seem to be random, gratuitous destruction. Unknown to the inhabitants of Earth, the aliens are controlled by a mysterious It (thus capitalized). The prologue and a sentence or two at the end of some chapters detail the thought processes of It. For example, “Soon It would have a new home to add to Its list of many.” This suggests a motive of occupation; however, “It started to take notice when animal life first appeared…” and “It waited and It watched, with an obsession even It would have been hard pressed to explain…” I understand procrastination, but waiting from the beginning of animal life until 2035 seems a bit much. Regardless, if Its goal was to depopulate the planet, I would expect an advanced intelligence to have a more efficient plan than to send giant insect-things to kill people one at a time. I would expect something along the lines of Sheldon’s “The Screwfly Solution.” (Perhaps it is unfair of me to compare Planet in Peril to quality science fiction.)
Most of the story takes place in 2035; however, early in the book, the narrative occasionally changes to 2033. Recently (that is, in 2033), the Cyborg Commando program successfully managed to transplant a human brain into a robotic, humanoid construct. For people who undergo this process, the bodies are preserved cryogenically so that the brain can eventually be reunited with the body, although such a transfer is not yet feasible at the time of the story. Candidates to become Cyborg Commandos are selected, in part, based on how well a candidate’s body is expected to react to cryogenic preservation. The brain-transfer situation could be used to examine a variety of things: what qualifies as “human,” what qualifies as “alive,” the nature of self-perception and other existential concepts, what happens to a brain when estranged from the chemical processes of its organic body, etc. Planet in Peril, of course, explores none of these things; after all, there are giant, alien insects to blow up.
The protagonist is a young man named Cris Holman. (I suppose the surname is intentionally suggestive of “whole man.”) The invaders kill Cris’ family, but not his birth mother. It so happens that Cris’ birth mother, Nora, “abandoned” him. Shortly after Cris was born, Nora accepted a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to participate in a project that would take her away from home for a few months. Rather than be supportive of his wife and her career goals, Cris’ father refused to let Nora see her child and moved halfway across the country, taking Cris with him. The judge presiding over their divorce gave the father custody and, evidently, did not grant Nora any visitation rights. This is what “abandoned” means according to Planet in Peril. Nora threw herself into her work and stayed with the project, which turned out to be the nascent Cyborg Commando program.
Incidentally, women – when they are described at all – are presented in terms of physical attractiveness. The reader is exposed to such phrases as “nearly flawless complexion” and “well-formed breasts.” Men are not so described. It seems that the authors considered the target demographic of the book.
As a result of the invasion, civilization collapses. Cris spends some time at a Civil Defense shelter, but the shelter eventually runs out of supplies. He learns about the Cyborg Commandos from an army sergeant who arranges for Chris’ transportation to “…a very large and very secure underground base that served as a research center for Cyborg Commando Force.” Of course, it’s the base where Nora is.(Cris doesn’t realize his mother is part of the program; Nora knows he is her son, but she keeps this secret.) There are “CC bases around the world,” but outside of these bases it’s every man for himself.
Cris becomes a Cyborg Commando, just like the back cover says. As a Cyborg Commando, his designation is P-17. This designation is necessary – it is explained – because: “…your true identity is not as a cybernetic soldier, but as a human being…If we didn’t think this was important, we would continue to call you by your given name…” So, to remind the self-aware brain that it’s not a cybernetic soldier, they address it with an alphanumeric code. Somebody didn’t think this through. The back cover says the fighting machines are computer-operated. Why is a human brain needed? Actually, the computer functions as a sort-of autonomic nervous system, but the brain can override the computer commands when needed. No reason is given as to why all of this is preferable to fighting machines remotely controlled by a virtual interface.
As a Cyborg Commando, Cris (as I shall continue to call him) is highly resistant to damage, has senses beyond the range of mere humans, and can shoot lasers from his knuckles and microwaves from his palms. Cyborg Commandos get from place to place by…running. In Cris’ training, emphasis is made that Cyborg Commandos must conserve energy; so I don’t know why they aren’t given jeeps or roller skates or something. It turns out that Cris is “one of the best candidates” and proves he is a “truly exceptional” Cyborg Commando. In the final combat scene of the book, Cris “knew exactly what to do.” That’s so precious and wonderful! Once he’s a Cyborg Commando, there’s no sense that Cris is ever in serious danger or that things won’t work out in his favor. Why would I want to read about this guy?
At the end of the book, Cris meets his mother and – I guess – they bond. This is told rather than shown. Given that this is the first book of a trilogy, it’s not reasonable to expect any sort of significant resolution. However, if your book has “Commando” and/or “Cyborg” in its title, the denouement should not be a dude meeting his mom. Trust me on this.