Fri 22 Jan 2016
MARTIN CAIDIN – The God Machine. E. P. Dutton, hardcover, 1968. Paperback reprints include: Bantam, 1969; Baen, 1989.
— Four Came Back. David McKay Co., hardcover, 1968. Paperback reprints include: Bantam 1970; Baen, 1988.
Martin Caidin, who wrote science fiction and adventure grounded in hard science and technology, and who is best remembered today for his novel Cyborg, which became the basis for the cult television series The Six Million Dollar Man, was never really part of the science fiction community his work most resembles. Most of his novels, like Cyborg, are thrillers using science fictional elements, and the writer he most resembles is Mickey Spillane in his narrative style and politics — which became increasingly bizarre (*) and dominant in his work later in his career.
But before that he wrote some entertaining adventure novels with a bit of hard science and technology in a blend of SF and thriller adventure novel that was unique to him.
The God Machine is the old supercomputer takes over the world trope. The hero, Steve Rand, works on Project 79, and as the book opens he is getting suspicious after an attempt on his life. He soon becomes convinced that it was the work of Project 79, a computer which may have achieved true AI (artificial intelligence).
Caidin was a top notch suspense novelist when he wanted to be, and Rand’s first person narration has an immediacy that will likely remind you favorably of Mickey Spillane, both in some fairly explicit (for the time) Spillane style sex scenes and the violence.
Rand manages to find a couple of allies in the project (one an attractive pneumatic fellow scientist) and in a suspenseful final down to the wire conflict must penetrate the near omniscient Project 79 and its lethal radioactive core in order to destroy the machine. It may not be as thoughtful as D. F. Jones’s Colossus: The Forbin Project of Charles Eric Maine’s B.E.A.S.T., but you can’t fault it as storytelling.
Four Came Back has an international group of eight astronauts sent to a space station in near-earth orbit contaminated by an alien virus accidentally brought on the ship. As the orbit deteriorates and the virus spreads they have to face that not only will they not be rescued, they may have no choice but to destroy themselves to keep from spreading the disease to Earth.
The crew is a mix of men and women, so there is a strong sexual element, kept in hand unlike some of Caidin’s later novels, and the narrative tension remains strong to the last page. It was a timely book when it first appeared, as NASA was seriously concerned they not bring anything back from space with the early Gemini missions, and it still works despite dating though Michael Crichton far surpassed it on all points with The Andromeda Strain. Four Came Back falls somewhere between Strain and Alistair MacLean’s The Satan Bug (published as by Ian Stuart).
The immediacy of Caidin’s best work shows here, and many of today’s thriller writers could learn something about narrative drive from reading these. Caidin delivered a maximum of suspense and drive in the books of this era, and many are still worth reading, even if the science and technology that were his selling point are out of date.
At his best, including Marooned (basis in an expanded version for the hit film with Gregory Peck), The Last Fathom, Cyborg, Whip, Almost Midnight, and Three Corners to Nowhere, Caidin wrote highly readable thrillers often with a strong basis in barely speculative day after tomorrow science and featuring strong narrative drive.
He was always at his best writing about flying. His years as a pilot and his love of flying was another thing he shared with Mickey Spillane, and in addition to his novels he wrote several good nonfiction works about flying and space as a reporter. He also penned novelizations of films such as The Final Countdown, the Six Million Dollar Man series, an updated Buck Rogers novel, and books in the Indiana Jones series of paperback originals for Bantam. His work roughly spans from 1956 to 1990 including non fiction and fiction, novels and short fiction.
I re-read the two reviewed here a few years ago, and while the science may not hold up and the technology has long since been surpassed, the narrative drive and Caidin’s convincing voice still shine through. These are solid entertaining and cinematic novels from his best period and are well worth a read, if you don’t mind your science well behind the contemporary norm and somewhat old fashioned pulpish writing.
(*) FOOTNOTE. In the Eighties Caidin hosted a Joe Pyne style talk show in which he confronted extremist groups and their leaders, then late in his career he became convinced he was possessed with PSI powers which was reflected in his novels often featuring amoral murderous supermen as protagonists. (I don’t think even Caidin would call them heroes.)
Some of his later books are disturbing reading for anyone who admired his earlier work, with some titles like Beamriders, Prison Ship, The Messiah Stone, and Dark Messiah just unreadable for me.
These later books combine the worst of the late works of Robert A. Heinlein with Randian extremism and almost Sadean scenes of sex and violence. Be warned, depending on your tolerance for this sort of thing. Whether it serves as a warning or as an enticement, most of those late works were published by Baen Books. In general I would avoid most of his work past 1981 save for the Indiana Jones books and TSR’s Buck Rogers: A Life in the Future (1995), but everyone will be their own guide.