In a very smart marketing move back in 2004, Baen gathered together this fine series of books and put them into an omnibus edition. This is the first time I’ve actually encountered Timothy Zahn’s writing – although I’d heard plenty about him, but hadn’t been in any real hurry to pick up one of his books as I have only limited enthusiasm for shoot ‘em up military action science fiction. However I now realise that I was seriously selling Zahn short – his work is far more than that…
The colony worlds Adirondack and Silvern fell to the Troft forces almost without a struggle. Outnumbered and on the defensive, Earth made a desperate decision. It would attack the aliens not from space, but on the ground – with forces the Trofts did not even suspect. Thus were created the Cobras, a guerrilla force whose weapons were surgically implanted, invisible to the unsuspecting eye, yet undeniably deadly. But power brings temptation… and not all the Cobras could be trusted to fight for Earth alone. Jonny Moreau would learn the uses – and abuses – of his special abilities, and what it truly meant to be a Cobra.
It sounds like just one more super-soldier adventure with warfare the staple and the protagonist spending his days dealing with a deadly enemy and corrupt officialdom on his own side… But it isn’t. Oh, there’s plenty of action, alright. Written with verve and tension – but the book quickly shoots off into another direction, exploring the far more intriguing political and social aspects of having a bunch of surgically enhanced fighters within a community. While they may be capable of saving a planet from a deadly alien invasion – what happens when the threat goes away and the majority of your force has survived the war?
This is just one of the questions Zahn’s enjoyable action-filled series raises – and for my money this is science fiction at its best. Layered in amongst the various adventures are a number of gnarly issues for readers to consider if they wish. Issues such as right versus might; at what stage does one society with superior technology intervene in the affairs of another planet to prevent a perceived threat? How far should a soldier follow orders?
Baen were spot-on in republishing this series, as Zahn’s writing style and general tone hasn’t dated although this series was originally released back in the 1980’s. His unfussy style manages to keep the action rolling forward through multiple viewpoints, avoiding the chunks of info-dumping so often prevalent with this sub-genre. It takes a lot of skill to set a storyline spanning several worlds while following a family down three generations as they grapple with another Cobra-related problem, without resorting to pages of background information in omniscient viewpoint. Some of my favourite authors can’t do it – but Zahn can.
I now realise why Timothy Zahn’s name still regularly comes up when fans discuss their favourite all-time reads – and I’ll be looking out for more of his work. While I don’t generally subscribe to the view that the golden age of science fiction writing occurred during the last century – there are too many fine contemporary authors producing excellent work for me to get dewy-eyed about past glories – I’m perfectly willing to add a few books from times past to the pile of books-to-read teetering beside my bed and this trilogy is certainly up there as one of my favourite reads of the year, so far…