Tales Of The Self-Indulgent: Manfac by Martin Caidin

permalink         categories: books · tales of the self-indulgent         originally posted: 2007-01-20 12:45:19

Martin Caidin was a prolific author of science-fiction novels and serious military history. He is probably most famous for his 1972 novel Cyborg, which was adapted into a TV movie and series: The Six-Million Dollar Man starring Lee Majors. Cyborg was the story of an ex-astronaut test pilot named Steve Austin. Austin was taking off in a new experimental aircraft when it suffered catestrophic equipment failure—an accident that leaves him alive but mutilated. A top-secret team of government researchers rebuilds his body, replacing his amputeed limbs and destroyed senses with mechanical, or "bionic", equivalents. His new arm can lift heavy objects, his new legs can run at great speed, his new ear can hear distant sounds...

Cyborg proved to be popular enough that Caidin wrote three sequels. But The Six Million Dollar Man was even more popular, and took on a life of its own. It ran for five seasons, created one spin-off series, and was followed by several made-for-TV-movies. Unfortunately, the TV movie only reused the original premise, diverging pretty quickly from Cyborg. Over the course of the show's run it got sillier and sillier, introducing a bionic woman (injured in a parachuting accident), a "bionic boy" (played by The Master star Vincent Van Patten!), and even a "bionic dog". If I recall correctly, one story arc in the show involved extraterrestrial alien sasquatches; another, a Mars probe that crash-landed back on Earth and became an unstoppable killing machine. Exciting, yes; entertaining to boys with single-digit ages, sure. But entirely ridiculous, and not at all in keeping with the dark, serious tone of the Cyborg novels.

Manfac

In contrast to the above, Mr. Caidin's 1981 novel Manfac is a bewildering and unfamiliar story. In it, our hero Lance Parker (a porn name if I've ever heard one) is a handsome, athletic, scientific modern-day rennaisance man working at a top-secret nuclear power plant built inside a mountain. Then disaster strikes—and the reactor is going critical! He averts a meltdown, only to be crushed under millions of tons of rock. Against all odds, he survives, but his once-beautiful body is scarred and twisted, a mockery of his former self. Then Lee Grazzi, the love of his life and a robotic expert, builds him robot suits he can climb into which look exactly like a man—and while in the suit he can lift heavy objects, the suit acts like heavy armor, its microphones can hear distant sounds...

Yeah, so, Mr. Caidin pretty much recycled the backstory of Cyborg. But I was interested in what new ideas and stories he wanted to tell in this setting, and how this would be "beyond bionics" as the cover suggested. I wasn't intentionally looking for something awful, as source material for derision; I read it for conventional entertainment.

And then, 127 pages in, I am rewarded with this:

He laughed aloud, and Lee studied him. "There was some deep humor in that sound," she observed.

"I was just thinking of the fanciful and wonderful celluloid world of television," he said.

She smiled. "I can guess. The bionic man."

"Uh-huh. The old Six Million Dollar Man smoothie. Old stone face mumbling at the camera. The made-to-order idiot."

"Leaping over tall buildings."

"Not without ear-stabbing sound effects," he added.

"And his bionic girl. Falling out of the sky and waking up supergirl."

They laughed together. "And who could forget the bionic boy, and the bionic dog, and the bionic asshole?"

The other reward from this book is the cover, presumably featuring Lance in his hunky Manfac suit. I read the book on a plane, and generally angled the cover away from onlookers, out of the hope that they wouldn't get the wrong idea about what kind of book I was reading, or what kind of person I was, Not That There's Anything Wrong With That.

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