Cyborg by Martin Caidin
Arbor House, 1972
Price I paid: none
He was a wonder of scientific perfection– but it was lonely as hell at the top. All the resources of NASA, the Pentagon, and Government Money put the pieces of Lt. Col. Steve Austin’s shattered body back together again. He came out of it more perfect than human. Better than new. A deadly, unstoppable weapon. Now all he needed was to find some human emotion in the tangle of plastic, wire and atomic metal that was fused to the remains of his flesh.from Goodreads
I don’t remember what led me to this book, but I think it was fate. This book is the origin of a particular piece of popular culture, one that I’ve long been aware of but have never sat down to watch intently. So I don’t know why I was reading about it, or something adjacent to it, with enough attention for me to go “Wait, that’s based on a novel? I need to read that novel!”
Yes, I’m being coy about what this book inspired. There’s a solid chance you know already, but let me have my fun.
This book was a best-seller when it came out, but it turns out that there are a lot of best-sellers that I’ve never heard of, so I’m just going to leave it at that. Still, it was popular enough to inspire a media franchise of a five-season television show and six made-for-TV movies, and that’s cool.
Let’s get to it!
Our hero is an astronaut and a test pilot named Steve Austin.
Nope, not that one, but I would like to mention that Stone Cold has been recently spotted online telling anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers to shut the hell up, so that’s awesome. I’ll give him a Hell Yeah.
No, this particular Steve Austin is not a wrestler, but I guess he could be? He’s in really good shape, that’s for sure! Or rather he is for the first page or two of the book, after which things begin to take a turn. But then after that turn he ends up in even better shape, it just takes a bit of doing.
Steve is an astronaut. He has, in fact, walked on the surface of the Moon. He was a member of the Apollo XVII crew, which, as in real life, was the final mission of the Apollo program. Steve is now a test pilot, and when we first meet him he’s testing out a plane described as a little more than an aerodynamic bathtub, a very early prototype for the upcoming Space Shuttle.
Steve rides into the sky in this thing, carried by a cargo plane of some variety, rockets to the very edge of space, and then is expected to land it. It’s a really tense first few pages of book, and I have to say it set the tone pretty well. If it weren’t for the fact that I knew what was going to happen thanks to the book jacket and my foreknowledge of popular culture, I would have been really surprised when at the last second the spaceplane hits the ground and shatters, taking Steve with it.
But then they rebuild him. Faster, stronger, etc.
So yes, what I’ve been getting at this entire time, if you haven’t figured it out already, is that this book was the basis for the television series The Six Million Dollar Man. It is, in fact, the first of four books, although I believe that the rest were released after the show began.
I have to admit I haven’t watched much of the show, but I have seen it in bits and pieces, along with the spinoff The Bionic Woman. From what I remember, the show was pretty family-friendly, a little bit goofy sometimes. I’ve checked out the first season DVD set from the library and I look forward to exploring more, especially the first television pilot, which apparently follows this book more closely than the rest of the series. Also it has Darren McGavin in it?!?!? Not as Steve, mind you. Steve Austin is still Lee Majors, as God intended.
The thing is, this book is not family friendly. Sometimes it’s downright gruesome. I don’t know how the show handles the reveal that Steve’s body is shattered. I meant to watch that episode before starting this review but then life got in the way, so maybe I’ll remember to get back to you on that. Either way, I cannot imagine that it’s the same way the book does, which describes Steve’s injuries in pretty shocking and lengthy detail.
His left arm is completely ripped off in the crash. His left eye is pierced by a piece of metal. His lower legs are completely crushed. All of his ribs are smashed. I think there was some other stuff.
But yes, they rebuild him, just as you might expect them to do. The funds come from a secret US Government Agency called the OSO, which I think becomes the OSI in the show. And I must say that I was delighted when they were quoted the figure and it came out to six million dollars.
Fun fact, that’s $39,187,033 in today’s money!
Of the 280 pages this novel stretches to, more than the first half consists of rebuilding Steve and getting him used to his new situation. Plenty of it is psychological. After getting his superpowered prostheses, Steve feels like a Frankenstein Monster, more machine than man, etc., etc. A not insignificant portion of the book consists of various people trying to get him laid.
And hoo golly does every woman in this book just absolutely adore Steve Austin!
Perhaps interestingly, the book doesn’t really deal that much with the trauma of the accident itself. At one point Steve conjures up scenes of the accident unbidden and then has to force them aside to return to the mission, but that’s it. And while early on Steve does show some of the classic symptoms of PTSD—a condition that hadn’t been named as such when the book was written—they just kind of…go away.
Steve’s prostheses are pretty amazing and I have to give the author a lot of credit for thinking them up and making them believable based on speculations from early 70s technology. A modern version of the Bionic Man would probably feature nanites and maybe a Wi-Fi antenna.
One thing I remember from the show is that Steve could use his Bionic eye as, like, a telescope? To zoom in on people? Was there a HUD involved? I’m fuzzy on those memories, but either way, none of that is the case in the book. Steve goes the entire book able to see out of only one eye. The destroyed one has been replaced with a prosthetic that serves as a camera, but he can’t see out of it.
Another thing in the book is that his Bionic limbs are more modular than I remember the show having? Steve’s first mission involved a lot of underwater shenanigans, and they give him a special pair of legs that have retractable swimfins and an oxygen tank built in. That’s pretty cool!
Other than that, some things are exactly what you’d expect if you’ve seen the show. He can run fast, his Bionic arm is very strong, he’s basically tireless.
So while we spend more than half of the book getting Steve’s limbs replaced and following him learning how to use them and getting into arguments and going back and forth on whether he even wants to participate in this program and ignoring a particularly “stacked” nurse who wants to get with him, the second half ends up being two separate missions, neither of which were particularly interesting.
Let me say that I followed the first half of the book like a hawk. I was really interested in seeing Steve grow and develop into a new person, one who has been through The Stuff but is coming out stronger thanks to both science and also his own indomitable will. It was a bit weird at some points and honestly I felt like it could have had more of the latter, but it was generally fine. The tone of this book was extremely 1970s Military Thriller and I think once I got used to that I was able to appreciate the book a little more for what it was. Not my favorite genre by any means, but it could be worse.
But then the second half of the book shows up and I mostly lost interest. Steve is sent first on a secret mission to Suriname (spelled without the terminal E throughout the sequence) to take some pictures of a Soviet submarine base. He gets to ride inside of some kind of Bionic dolphin, so that’s pretty cool, but almost immediately things begin to go badly for him. It’s all very tense and he almost gets caught several times. He does manage to snag the pictures (thanks to his Bionic eye) and get away, but one of his Bionic legs is destroyed in the escape.
That first mission had a lot of the feel of a video game’s tutorial level. I could practically see the helpful guide on my screen saying “Hold R2 to bring up the item wheel and select your oxygen tube with the right thumbstick, then press A.”
The second mission is, I guess, where things are supposed to get real. Most of it left me pretty cold, which is perhaps ironic because it all takes place in the Middle East! Oh boy does this book treat folks over there like shit. It’s really gross!
Steve has a partner for this one, a woman named Tamara who is a Colonel in the Israeli Army. She is, of course, extremely beautiful, although once again Steve has difficulty, um, reacting. It’s really goofy how she struts around naked and asks him openly if he has an erection. Steve mostly finds that irritating. I’m not sure if it’s supposed to have more to do with his own feelings of inadequacy (which I thought he’d dealt with earlier in the book) or if we’re supposed to think of him as an All-American boy who is waiting for a real special lady (which we definitely dealt with earlier in the book).
Their mission is to go to a fictional country named Afsir, formerly a part of Egypt and currently occupied by Soviets, and steal a MiG-27, a new fighter plane with which the Israeli Air Force has been having trouble dealing.
Here’s something pretty gross about this part of the book: Steve and Tamara are able to sneak into Afsir after the Israelis fly some unmanned aircraft into Afsir’s airspace, which get shot down by antiaircraft fire, after which the Israelis are able to claim that this was an unprovoked attack on peaceful aircraft and then launch an invasion force.
I guess some things never change.
Our heroes use this invasion as cover and disguise themselves as Soviets. Steve also brutally murders several people with his bare hand (the Bionic one, which happens to have steel plates built in), which I don’t really see Lee Majors doing. (I keep wanting to type Lee Marvin, incidentally. That would be an interesting show.)
Nevertheless, they get caught and there’s a whole ton of gross sexual menace surrounding the way all the Arab soldiers look at Tamara, to the point where she says that if she’s able to, she’ll kill herself rather than remain in their captivity.
Not great, book!
Nothing actually happens to her, and Steve uses his powers to bust them both out and they do manage to steal the plane, but the plane crashes in the desert because I’m starting to think that Steve Austin isn’t actually a very good pilot! To be fair, the plane takes a bullet at one point but the main thing is that it runs out of plane gas.
It’s at that point that Steve notices that the plane has an atomic bomb strapped to the underside, which is a big deal I guess. So he takes some eye pictures of it and then the couple walk back to Israel. They almost die in the desert but they are rescued just in time, in a way that felt pretty trite.
And that’s that! The book ends with Steve and Tamara in the hospital, with his doctor musing that it’s great how the two of them found one another, but more importantly, that Steve found himself. Whatever that means. I absolutely did not get the feeling at any point that Steve had a kind of revelation that led to a new burst of self-confidence or anything.
So this book started off strong but didn’t hold up. I think that’s largely because the first part just took up too much space and the second didn’t really have time to develop into a good satisfying narrative. Either that, or if the book had ended earlier and led into a full sequel where Steve learned how to use his powers in the field or something. The Military Thriller sequences just didn’t have enough breathing room, I think is the issue. And also they were racist as hell and relied too heavily on sexual menace.
It’s hard to say whether Steve Austin was likable or not because he really didn’t have all that much of a personality. He was largely just macho. He was allowed both of the requisite emotions that men can have. He got angry a lot and eventually he finally got horny. In fact, it’s the lack of horny that is what concerns his doctors throughout his rehabilitation process. That’s almost funny. They literally declare him mentally healthy enough to be a secret agent after he’s able to get it up and do the Horizontal Caramelldansen.
Like, at the beginning of the book Steve has a girlfriend named Jan and they clearly really like each other. She leaves him after the accident, not because she really wants to but because Steve’s doctor tells her it’s the right thing to do. He does this before he knows that Steve will become a superhero and it’s pretty gross, to be honest. Either way, Steve thinks about her exactly one time in the rest of the book, and I’m not even sure it’s, like, a tender thought. Just a passing one.
I kinda want to rewrite this book but with way less toxic masculinity? That would be really interesting. For all I know, that’s what the show is. At least there’s eventually a Bionic Woman, and they even get married. Do they have Bionic Children? And I wonder if she ever shows up in any of the books. I bet something happens to Tamara in the next one, possibly involving a refrigerator.
So this book was kind of an interesting cultural artifact but I don’t think I can recommend it as anything but that. The things that kept me reading intently were mostly looking to see how much the show actually adapted the book and what it left behind, which is of course a pretty silly thing for me to do as I’ve already admitted that I’m not super familiar with the show in the first place. Basically I was just looking to see if it ever mentioned how much everything costed, and it did, pretty early on.
The prose was relatively dry in that tough-guy kind of way, and the techno-bits really did drag on for a long time. I think maybe the reason so much of the book was about rebuilding Steve was because our author had to explain everything, at great length. I made a little game out of seeing which bits of technology came true (not very many) and which ones are still pretty unlikely to ever happen (many but not all), and that kept things interesting for a while, but again, once that was over and we started helping the Israeli military commit war crimes, I was pretty well checked out.
I still look forward to checking out the television series, especially the pilot episodes, pretty soon, and when I do I’ll maybe add a little bit to this review if it’s worth doing. One way or the other, have a good week and take care of yourselves!