The Cyborg and the Sorcerers by Lawrence Watt-Evans
Del Rey, 1982
Price I paid:
Slant the Cyborg Warrior had been ordered to kill the enemies of Earth and return with their weapons technology. His robot spacecraft was to see that he did―and kill him if he didn’t.
Problem was―Earth had perished three hundred years before, and no one had told the ship.
Slant’s dilemma seemingly had no solution…then they landed on a strange world where the computer detected “gravitational anomalies.”
Folks, I’m just gonna come right on out and say that I liked this book a lot.
I sort of expected to like it on some certain levels. The title, for one, is totally up my alley. A cyborg and some sorcerers? Those are two of my favorite things! When you put ’em together, there’s no telling what kind of wonder will occur!
What I expected, of course, was some really pulpy, cheesy wonder. I’ve read some other sci-fi/fantasy crossovers and they’re of varying quality. On the one hand we have The Suiciders, which was just tralton dumbo; another hand gives us the Annwn books by George H. Smith, which were fun but also problematic (Irish stereotypes still aren’t funny when they’re in a fantasy land); and on the third hand (because we’re talking about sci-fi), there’s Roger Zelazny, who was a genius.
The hybrid genre comes in two varieties. There are the books that are just fantasy books but someone, somewhere, thought that calling them science fiction would lend them more credibility. Those tend to annoy me a lot. The other lot is where you have a science fiction setting with a science fiction protagonist who just happens to stumble upon some people or a place that has magic. This is what I was talking about earlier, and what we’re dealing with now.
This version is always (in my limited experience) the story of a sci-fi protag who comes across a magical situation. I mention this only because I was struggling to get to sleep last night and tried to imagine a plot where it was the other way around. To wit:
Unnatural 20 by Thomas Anderson
Some publisher, 2024
Price I paid: 1¢ + $3.99 S/H
Archmage Flowermuffin was your everyday, run-of-the-mill wizard. Until ONE DAY he found himself trapped in a world wholly unfamiliar to him…
A world of technology, engineering, and the laws of physics.
Now, he needs the help of a Freedok to save his life―and get home. But Steve is nowhere to be found.
FIRST TIME IN PAPERBACK
I tried for at least an hour and couldn’t come up with something that I thought would seriously work. I’m sure someone else has, somewhere. Everything I could think of just turned out to be a ripoff of the classic PC game Arcanum, which, incidentally, deserves a revisit. At the very least, a Fallout 4 mod. Get on that, somebody.
The Cyborg and the Sorcerers also has a great cover going for it. St. Peter is in the front there, being assisted by country-rock superstar Randy Owen. Three guys are like “we’ll catch up later” while the last guy is bad at flying. They are transporting Christ to his tomb outside the walls of Jerusalem.
You know what’s great? The cover represents an actual scene from the book! That’s crazy! What is happening here!?!?
And then we get to the story, which is…just…so well done. It’s so good, everybody. I’m not being ironic, or funny, or anything right now. This book is fine.
I’m not gonna shoot for the moon and say it’s any kind of a lost classic. It’s just that it’s competently done and enjoyable to read. That’s all I ask for!
Our hero is the eponymous cyborg. His name is Slant. He’s been in space for fourteen years…subjective. To an outside observer, he’s been flying around the galaxy for a little over 300 years. His job is to scout out enemies of Earth. Earth had a big ole war with all its colonies. The colonies wanted independence. Pretty standard, but the deal here is that Earth lost, hard, not long after Slant left.
The problem is that Slant is being handled by a computer. The computer’s job is to make sure that Slant is doing his job right. It can take over his body if need be, and if need really be it can kill him by detonating a thermite bomb implanted in his skull. The computer doesn’t know that the war is over. It won’t listen when Slant tries to tell it so. The mission must continue until Slant dies, in which case the computer will self-destruct. Slant is beginning to suspect that the computer is putting him in dangerous situations on purpose so that it can off itself.
Slants wanderings bring him to a planet that used to be an Earth colony, and therefore an enemy. This planet was pretty obviously nuked to the gills back during the war, but the computer doesn’t care. There are “gravitational anomalies” that might suggest a weapon that could be used against Earth. Investigation is imperative. So Slant investigates.
The planet has a civilization trying to rebuild itself. It’s got a sort of medieval thing going on. There are also wizards. That part becomes apparent pretty quickly. The wizards can fly, can change the weather, can tell if a person is lying. They probably have plenty of other abilities, too. What’s undeniable is that their magic works. It’s pretty crazy. The computer refuses to believe what’s going on, and keeps insisting that there are gravitational anomalies and that the wizards are probably using some kind of weapon that can be used against Earth so they must be investigated.
90% of the conflict in this book is between Slant and his computer. This is good. The computer can make him do things he doesn’t want to do. Several times throughout the book he is forced to kill people because the computer interprets them as a threat even though they aren’t really, or because the computer wants to study their brain to see how the magic works, or whatever. Slant hates it, but there’s nothing he can do about it.
About halfway through the book Slant’s actions garner him enough attention that some wizards decide to put a stop to it. He can’t explain to him that the computer is making him do these things, since the computer will interpret that as an act of surrender and kill him. The wizards use their wizard powers to disable his ship and the computer with it. Slant is free.
One thing that made this book work is that while it was a little longer than most of the paperbacks I do―sitting at about 250 pages―it didn’t ramble around from adventure to adventure like so many of this kind of book would. Yeah, there’s a lot of travel, and Slant goes to some far-flung places, but there’s a solid story here flowing through each adventure, not some series of adventures that kill wordcount until the final battle.
Slant runs across an apprentice wizard named Ahnao. She was the apprentice of a wizard that Slant was forced to kill so he could take his head to the computer for study. Slant begrudgingly takes her under his wing. He spends a lot of time thinking about how useless she is. She can’t ride a horse or set up camp, and her magic is barely usable, so what good is she? I worried that the answer would be sex, but I was relieved to see that it was not.
They do eventually do The Horizontal Thriller, but there’s a little more to it than most books. Ahnao makes the first move, which causes Slant to respond automatically. See, he’s got these extra personalities grafted onto his own as part of his training. There’s a combat personality, for instance, as well as a spy one and several others. They’re meant to help him respond automatically to survival situations. One of those personalities is apparently sex-haver.
Other than that one scene, there is no romance between the two characters. There wasn’t really romance there, either. For Slant’s part, it was entirely mechanical, albeit perfect. A parody of lovemaking. Here, like in many other points of the book, he is ashamed of himself, even though it’s not really his fault.
Slant and Ahnao head to a big city and meet some more wizards. They get to live in a wizard tower for a while (it’s an abandoned skyscraper from the Bad Times). Here and before there were some explanations of “magic” in this world, but I have to give the author a lot of credit for not babbling on about it for super long. It’s not quite handwaved, either. Basically, magic is the ability to perceive the invisible forces of the world―gravity, for example―and interact with them. This is a result of a particular modification of brain structure. Anyone can have their brain modified so that they, too, can be a wizard, but it must be done by another wizard. There are lots of rules about apprenticeship and so on that keep the world from being chock full of wizardry.
Slant speculates that it’s probably some form of psionics that came about as a mutation after the planet was nuked by Earth. Somebody came out with a weird brain that let them do magic, they figured out they could change somebody else’s brain, and it spread from there. Simple and straightforward, but not necessarily the end-all-be-all of the thing. There is a sequel to this book.
While Slant is free of the computer’s influence, he is also free to tell people the truth of the situation. It’s hard for many to believe that he’s a spaceman with a bomb in his head and a computer that made him do some terrible things, but they come around. He makes friends with a wizard named Arzadel, who thinks he can find a way to get the bomb out of Slant’s head. Before it’s managed, though, the computer comes back on, much to Slant’s surprise and dismay.
Slant now has to be careful again. His companions get the idea pretty quickly, which was nice. I hate it when the plot can only move forward because everybody is stupid. Nobody is stupid in this book. I really like that.
It turns out that the computer was able to get enough power going to reactivate itself, whereupon it was able to set up some solar panels. Once it has enough power to turn on the ship’s drive, it’ll come pick him up and kill a bunch of people in the meantime. Slant really doesn’t want that to happen. He tries to get the computer to stay where it is, but it refuses. The computer also refuses to let him leave the city he’s found. If Slant comes down out of the wizard tower, he leaves the computer’s line of sight for communications, which makes the computer mad. Everything is looking bad.
It gets worse when a bunch of wizards show up to remove the thermite from Slant’s head. The computer ignites the bomb just as the wizards are able to get it removed, but it’s still close enough to Slant’s head that it wounds him bad. The computer, now convinced that Slant is dead, can self destruct, but orders are that it has to destroy as many enemy installations as it can before doing so. Because the people of this planet are helpless, the ship can easily destroy them all before self-destructing.
The book winds down as a race against time. Slant needs to get to the computer to deactivate it before it is able to take off and blow stuff up.
Oh, something I forgot to mention: When the ship powered down near the middle of the book, an automatic recording came on that told Slant how to deactivate his own cyborg programming and, if necessary, the computer’s control on him. The problem is that Slant can’t do it remotely. He has to get back to the ship to turn it off.
The override code, incidentally, is Slant’s civilian name spoken three times. The process that made Slant a cyborg deliberately made it difficult to remember his previous life, but the very beginning of the book had an offhand comment about how he was once able to remember his name so he wrote it down on a piece of paper and put it inside of a book. At first I assumed this to be a Chekov’s Gun, but it was cleverer than that!
This novel is full of surprises!
Slant is unable to get back to the ship by himself, especially since that bomb went off next to his head, so some wizards fly him there. Time is ticking.
The Chekov moment comes about when he gets back onto the ship and begins looking for the slip of paper with his name on it. It turns out he has a lot of books! And a lot of them have slips of paper with stuff written down on them! It’s super relatable!
And it only serves to waste precious time looking!
The ship takes off. Miraculously, Slant remembers that his name is Sam Taylor and gives the override. Now the problem is that the ship is actually flying and he just shut down the computer that controls it. He’s going to crash and explode and die, but at least it’s just him and not the cool wizard planet.
Nuts to that, says he! He tries various methods of controlling the ship, all to limited avail. Near the end, he gets some tingly feelings and is able to slow the ship down just enough that it doesn’t kill him when it crashes. His wizard buddy shows up to rescue him and says that Slant was a wizard all along!
Just kidding. Slant was really a wizard for, like, an hour. Arzadel says that while the other wizards were getting the thermite bomb out, they figured it would help things a lot of they modified his brain to make him a wizard too, but decided not to tell him until he was finished with the space ship since it might have been too distracting.
That’s the end of the book.
Boy howdy, I did go on! There was a lot going on, and I liked almost all of it.
Best I can figure, I have exactly one criticism of the book, and it’s that most of the people in it had the same voice. Slant was a good character to follow in his omniscient third-person kind of way. He had a good voice and some personality and was a likable character. Everybody else just sort of sounded the same, though. It wasn’t a turnoff, but it did make it hard to distinguish all the characters besides the main one. I had to consult the book several times while writing this review to figure out who was who.
Is that it, though? I think it is! Find this book and give it a try! If it’s up your alley the way it was mine, I think you’ll like it.
There’s a sequel, which I intend to find and read. The author, Lawrence Watt-Evans, is pretty prolific. He’s got a lot more fantasy than sf, as far as I can tell, and he’s still writing and getting stuff published. He’s active on Twitter, too, and seems like a cool guy. He’s also written some tie-in fiction for Star Trek: DS9 and Voyager, which intrigues me. Also Spider-Man? Neat.
So yeah, that’s about all I have to say today.