Cobra by Timothy Zahn

Cobra is a very different book from the one that I thought I was picking up. What I thought was a action packed book about super soldiers fighting aliens turned out to be an examination of humans, politics, and learning to adapt to a whole new kind of human being.

Who deserves power? Colloquial wisdom would tell us that only those who do not desire it truly deserve to have it. As it so often is, colloquial wisdom is an oversimplification of the facts. The truth is that there are a great number of people (myself included) who do not desire any kind of authoritative control and who are actually terrible leaders. On the other end of the spectrum there are those who crave power and leadership so fiercely that they will abandon families and stomp on the fingers of their own children to get it and they are truly great leaders. That is because human beings are a spectrum of individuals. We cannot be summed up in trite little statements.

So I return to my former question. Who deserves power? Who deserves to make decisions that will affect, not only their own lives, but also the lives of hundreds, thousands, or even millions of others, who they don’t even know?

It’s not an easy question to answer and it’s likely to be around for as long as there are people. The people should speak for themselves but when the masses become too massive then nobody can hear over the din. That’s when we create governments and have elections and appoint people to speak for us and hope that the majority of the people around us want the same person we do. Or at least that the person elected is smart enough, and selfless enough, to act in the best interest of the people who elected him or her.

When war breaks out against the Troft – a completely mysterious alien race – Jonny Moreau enlists in the army because he wants to help people gain their freedom. What he is offered is a chance to become a Cobra, an elite guerrilla fighter with augmented strength and a superior array of weaponry built directly into his body making him a deadly super weapon.

What Jonny quickly learns is the euphoric power that such strength, speed, and invulnerability give to a person when surrounded by ‘normals’. Jonny goes to war, the war ends, and he comes home to find that people don’t appreciate living with a man who has weapons grade lasers and lightning reflexes wired into his body.

He quickly accepts a call to settle a distant planet and that is where his adventure starts.

Aventine is a world beyond the fringes of human space. It’s all the way on the other side of the Troft collective. Jonny and hundreds of other Cobras settle there with thousands of other settlers. The Cobras are needed to keep the vicious native predators at bay while the settlers get crops planted and try to start their civilization.

Then some of the Cobras decide they know how to do things better than the local government… and they have the means to stage a coup that no normal person could stand up against. When it turns out that many of the settlers agree that the Cobras – being faster and stronger – deserve to have a stronger say in matters then the dynamics of the world suddenly change. Jonny is faced with trying to keep a balance among his peers and fellow civilians but also in his own mind.

Timothy Zahn is one of my favorite authors because of things like this. He tells a compelling story, with great action and gripping story while making me think. His prose isn’t smooth and buttery but rather soft and clear in that way where you can almost forget that you are reading because the words become invisible. This is one of his earlier novels so there are a few clunky spots and the characters are pretty mundane but this is an idea story, not a character story. And this idea completely turned me on my head.

What looked like another military science fiction adventure turned out to be a deeply told story of a man trying to do his best for the people around him. He didn’t want to be in charge but he wanted them to be safe and taken care of, even if it meant spending his life in their service.

And that is what I think makes a great leader. It doesn’t matter if a person has a drive to be in the center of everything or prefers to govern from the sidelines. It doesn’t matter if he or she wishes has a powerful way with words, or exudes charisma, or has a strong ability to lead. It matters if he or she loves the people being governed.

Timothy Zahn is one of my favorite authors and I would recommend picking up just about anything he has written and start reading. You will not regret it.

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