by Martin Caidin
“Colonel Steve Austin, a man barely alive. We can rebuild him. Better, faster, stronger. We have the technology.”
So declared the opening lines to every episode of The Six Million Dollar Man, a sci-fi superhero TV show from the 70s. Steve Austin’s adventures were appointment viewing in my household, although I was too wee a bairn at the time to create concrete memories of it. I have dim recollections of Lee Majors running in slow motion accompanied by electronic sound effects, something about Bigfoot, Oscar Goldman in his yellow tinted glasses, and not much else. We had the Mego action figure, though, and I used to love looking through the hole in the back of Austin’s head to see out his bionic eye, or open the panels in his legs to pull out the microphone and other tools. I’ve certainly had a lifelong interest in cybernetics and bionic technology, both practical and theoretical, and I think I can safely trace that interest back to Steve Austin.
But before the television show, there was the novel. Published in 1972 and written by former pilot and “consultant to air surgeon of the Federal Aviation Agency” Martin Caidin, there was a quick turnaround to create the show, which premiered in 1973. All the elements are in the book as well: Colonel Steve Austin, a regular man’s man who flew helicopters in Vietnam before getting a million dollar injury, was the youngest astronaut to walk on the moon, knows judo and aikido, and became a test pilot, that bravest and manliest of professions. Oscar Goldman barely appears, but he is there, a representative of the OSO (Office of Special Operations, changed to the OSI, Office of Scientific Intelligence in the show). Doctor Rudy Wells, Austin’s friend and surgeon, is present at the crash that cripples Austin and helps operate on him to turn Austin into a cyborg. And there are intelligence missions against the dreaded Soviet menace: Austin infiltrates a hidden submarine base in South America with the aid of some robot porpoises and attempts to steal a top secret Russian jet from an area in Egypt.
But the action and adventure portions of the novel take up only about a third of the page count. Much more effort is spent on describing Austin’s recovery from his injuries and transformation into a cybernetic organism – I don’t know if Caidin coined the term “cyborg” but it feels that way from the text – and adaptation to his new limbs. I brought up how manly Austin is portrayed because this is 1972 and machismo is of great concern, not only in the public consciousness but in the book as well. Austin has been rendered impotent by the loss of his legs, left arm, and left eye. Not even the replacements can give him his manhood back, until he tests himself and proves himself and is able to make love to a woman once more. The narrative is creepily obsessed with Steve Austin’s sexuality, and of the four women who appear in the book, two are nurses who throw themselves at Austin (even after one has seemingly made it clear she has no interest along those lines), a third is Austin’s fiancée who is run out of town on a railroad following the initial crash because Dr. Rudy Wells thinks Steve won’t be able to recover fully if she’s around, and the fourth is a capable, tough as nails Israeli soldier who partners with Steve to steal the jet. The latter, Tamara Zigon, is set up as the Agent XXX in this set, with the tribulations that the pair go through acting as a crucible for their relationship and implying that she would be around for a while as Steve’s partner and girlfriend (there are three more novels, which I will probably never read). The attitudes towards women (usually called “girls,” actually) is every bit as forward-thinking as one would expect in 1972.
The surgeries and the bionic limbs are the focus of the novel, with the secret agent stuff tacked on at the end, perhaps to help Caidin sell the idea to a network or movie studio, but at the very least to justify the $6 million in 1972 dollars (about $34 million adjusted for 2019 inflation) required to finance the operation. Austin’s limbs are nuclear powered devices of “microminiaturization” and while this impresses Oscar Goldman in the initial briefing, the doctors caution that up to two (2) computers may have to be built into Austin as well! Hence the enormous price tag, the reader is led to believe. There’s a quaintness to the book’s attitude about technology that is lacking in its attitude towards women; Austin’s bionics are clearly beyond anything we can do even today, and yet Caidin had to visualize their advances based on technology available in the early 1970s. We put human beings on the Moon after all, this stuff would be theoretically possible, if practically impossible.
Much discussion is given over as to how Austin didn’t bleed to death on the runway, how the bionic limbs attach, and how because his organic body is a sealed system, he can more efficiently get oxygen in his blood than a fully limbed person, and how combined with the nuclear power in his limbs, he can run much greater distances without tiring. He doesn’t quite get up to 60 mph, but he is able to use his legs like an outboard motor at one point. In point of fact, the Steve Austin from the novel has much greater limitations than the Steve Austin from the TV show. His false eye is merely a camera, he can’t see out of it at all. His left arm can punch with great force (in fact, he literally crushes skulls a couple times) but he doesn’t lift any tremendous weights. He doesn’t leap up two stories or run as fast as a car, and he evades death through luck and a little bit of skill. Steve Austin is hardly invulnerable, and his two outings as a secret agent don’t work out smoothly either time.
Cyborg was interesting mostly as an artifact, a precursor to something I was more familiar with and had a larger impact on me as a child. Caidin’s prose is nothing remarkable. Workmanlike, I would say, and the casual sexism of the period did not help my engagement with the text. Austin himself is largely unlikeable. Although we do meet him on the worst day of his life and travel through his psychological and physical recovery, he never rises above being kind of a jerk. A patriotic jerk who will rescue a busload of schoolchildren from a burning vehicle, but still a jerk. Caidin also never really embraces the fantastic in his science fiction novel. There’s too much realism in this story about a man with robot limbs that look identical to real limbs (and oh boy is there plenty of explanation about how that works, down to figuring out how to change their pigmentation when Steve is at the beach). Too much medical minutiae, not enough bionic action. Only the robot porpoises seem to rise to the absurdity of the premise and really embrace how fun and out-there the adventures of a six million dollar man could be.
One of my favorite past times is haunting used bookstores, looking for out-of-print and forgotten classics. My taste in literature tends to run toward fantasy, science-fiction, and horror, and I find modern novels too often weighed down by bloat and too much world-building. As a consequence, I tend to seek out older books that tend to focus more on ideas and action and move along more quickly. I always liked the “Box of Paperbacks” series at the A.V.Club, so I thought I’d take a stab at something in the same vein.