One of my earliest memories as a kid is reading my aunt’s old comic books. In one of those beloved books, I can recall seeing an ad for toys. These toys were from a TV show called The Six Million Dollar Man. There was a guy in a track suit lifting something heavy in the ad. In one corner, the same guy was sleeping in a tube, with all sorts of wires attached to him. I was very little, only 4 years old, when the Six Million Dollar Man was cancelled, so I don’t recall if I ever saw it when it first aired. I do, however, remember watching the show in the mid 80s when it was syndicated. The intro and theme song made a big impression on me at the time, and are still awesome today.
I don’t recall exactly when I learned that The Six Million Dollar Man was based on a novel written by Martin Caidin, but when I did, I immediately wanted to read the book. Rewatching the TV show as an adult gave me mixed feelings; the show was really (REALLY) cheesy at times, especially in later seasons. But the idea of a 70s era sci-fi novel take on the premise seemed interesting, as it would presumably be more realistic and less reliant on bad special effects. There were some $6MM-branded books by other authors adapting show episodes, but I was most interested in Caidin’s, as the original idea was his. It was hard to track all these books down, but eventually I did. I just recently finished reading the last book in Caidin’s series.
The book version of Steve Austin is more grim. He waffles between human emotion and machine-like coldness, unlike Lee Majors’ goody two shoes. Book Steve has no problems with killing in the line of duty, either. His cyborg abilities are pretty close to the TV versions, much stronger in some ways, but less effective in others. Book Steve is more accomplished than his TV counterpart, having walked on the moon and generally being the smartest and most determined dude in the room in ANY room.
Here are my brief thoughts on each book, followed by my feelings on the series as a whole.
The first book opens with the launch of a test aircraft and its subsequent crash. Super pilot Steve Austin is horribly injured, and becomes the subject of an experimental process, making him a hybridization of human biology, electronics, and engineering. The first TV movie followed this part of the novel very closely.
Some might find the first half of the book, where lengthy sequences of the details of the things done to Steve are detailed, to be tedious. They are, indeed, very thick, but I found this thickness delightfully crunchy. The science feels plausible, for the time. The terms used (transistors, nuclear powered everything) definitely age the book, but I found this to only add to the charm.
Steve is an unwilling participant in the cyborg process, and much of it is done to him while he is still unconscious and thus without his consent. This leads to some philosophical discussions, and even Steve’s attempt at suicide. However, by the second half of the book, Steve begins to accept his new life and its responsibilities. He goes off on missions, using his cybernetic enhancements to great effect. The final mission provides a satisfying conclusion, and had me eager for more cyborg adventures.
Operation: Nuke (1973)
Unfortunately, the second book left me wanting. The plot, as you might expect, focuses on that old Cold War chestnut, rogue operatives who threaten to steal nuclear weapons. The first half of the book is heavy on the exposition, with extensive information about the nuclear politics of the time. Honestly, it was way more than I found myself wanting to know.
The main villain, Sam Franks, is given a huge amount of backstory, detailing his motivation and capabilities. His underlings are many and dangerous. Steve is given the task of infiltrating the organization, and of course this leads to the inevitable tests of dedication and such. It’s all rather standard spy thriller fare.
That’s the biggest problem, really. Steve Austin is given precious few opportunities to use his cybernetic enhancements. I want to see Steve do crazy stuff that no one else can do, and he doesn’t really do that in this story. It’s a passable super spy story, but it doesn’t feel very bionic, in any way, shape, or form.
High Crystal (1974)
This is basically The Bionic Man in Chariots of the Gods. A great premise! Strange stuff happens in the mountains of Peru, and Steve and a crack team of specialists go on an expedition to investigate. After the disappointment of Operation Nuke, I guarded my expectations for this one, but it was difficult given the appeal of the “ancient aliens” theme.
For the most part, this book gets the series back on track. Steve has several opportunities to use his bionics, though he does have to hide it from his colleagues. The team of experts along for the ride are fine, and of course there’s a beautiful woman for Steve to exchange glances with. The group is pursued by bad guys which add some tension, and in the final act everyone ends up in a strange temple where they find the titular crystal.
In some sense, High Crystal reminds me of the strangest of the episodes of the TV show, those featuring Bigfoot and aliens. The book isn’t quite that outlandish. It is still firmly in the “realistic” sci-fi genre, and the more fantastic, inexplicable elements really make it stand apart. The novel doesn’t always work, but when it does, it’s lots of fun.
Cyborg IV (1975)
Despite the boring name, this book is quite good. Steve returns to his roots as an astronaut, piloting a test craft that isn’t the actual space shuttle but may as well be. This experimental craft is able to fly in the atmosphere as well as maneuver in the vacuum of space. It’s a good thing Steve is on the case, because the Russians are in space doing Cold War Russia things, and we’ve got to defeat them because of the free world and all that.
One of Caidin’s shticks is a hyperabundance of technical detail, merging realism and speculation. The first book in the series was heavy on this, but Cyborg IV takes it to the next level. Steve is uniquely positioned to be the first human to fully interface with a spacecraft, directly controlling it with his own mind as if it were part of his body. A tenacious (and beautiful) scientist/psychologist/astronaut trains Steve in how to do this without losing his own identity on the process. Fully half the book is dedicated to all the changes to Steve’s cybernetics and his training in how to use it to control the spacecraft.
The merging of a man-machine with another machine a fine concept, and really the novel lives or dies on it. If you like lots of speculative detail about the science of this sort of thing, it’s great. If not, there’s not much action and adventure in Cyborg IV to keep you reading. I rate the book as the second best of the lot, and definitely the most science-fiction-ey. (If that isn’t a word, it should be.)
What about the series as a whole? It’s a mixed bag. The initial concept of Cyborg is excellent, taking a very unusual idea for a character, blending it with cutting edge (for the time) science and mixing in spy thriller tropes. But the page count of the series is mostly lengthy discussion of Steve’s body and its capabilities rather than fun action sequences where he does interesting cyborg stuff. I think a more even mix of concept and action would make for better reading.
It’s worth saying that the Cyborg books are very dated. They are definitely products of their time. On the science end, I find this charming, as they read similar to books I enjoyed reading as a young man. If you have a nostalgia for this type of thing, you won’t mind this sort of stuff. On the other hand, the books are very iffy in their presentation of women and succumb to the xenophobic stereotypes rampant at the time. These might be deal breakers for some readers.
Unfortunately, Cyborg and its sequels haven’t been reprinted for many years and are thus very hard to find. I managed to find good reader copies at reasonable prices, but it took me years to do so. Given the resurgence in nostalgia for 70s and 80s franchises, I’m surprised the Cyborg books aren’t available digitally. Perhaps the rights are tied up? Who knows. In any event, I’d highly recommend hunting down at least the first book for any fan of the TV show, or solid vintage sci-fi in general.