Book Review: Victor Milan’s Cybernetic Samurai
Victor Milan has a way with titles.
I mean, The Dinosaur Lords delivered. It had dinosaurs, and it had some guys lording over them, and there ya go. The Cybernetic Samurai isn’t quite as spot-on, but it still works. Funnily enough, I plucked The Cybernetic Samurai out of a dollar bin a good while before I read The Dinosaur Lords— it’s just been banging around in my to-read pile until now.
Milan released The Cybernetic Samurai in 1985, and the book shows it in a whole bunch of ways. There’s the whole cyberpunk thing, plus the 80’s-tastic obsession pop culture had with ninjas & samurai, plus a heaping dose of “the Japanese are going to take over the U.S. Economy with their cheap cars and electronics!” Honestly, that whole “economic yellow peril” meme never went away– it’s just that these days it’s the Chinese they tell you we need to worry about. Maybe I should just re-skin this novel as Cybernetic Shaolin.
Anyway! The Cybernetic Samurai is set in post WWIII Japan, in which Elizabeth O’Neill, a brilliant (but horribly abrasive) scientist works with a Japanese megacorporation to create true artificial intelligence. Or “artificial awareness,” as they call it. And when they do create a nigh-omnipotent supercomputer, they decide to name it TOKUGAWA (it’s spelled all caps, every time, which makes me guess they’re yelling the guy’s name) and train it in the way of bushido. Because Japan.
I’m reminded of an episode of the old Transformers cartoon in which a Japanese scientist builds a giant ninja lady robot “to benefit mankind.” Uh. Kay.
There’s a whole weird thing going on in The Cybernetic Samurai in which creating a super powerful computer intelligence and naming it after one of the most famous dictators in Japanese history and training it in outmoded feudal thinking is all presented as a good thing. It’s actually kind of funny, as there’s one character who says “hey, this sounds like a bad idea,” but then O’Neill turns into a crazy paranoid bitch and sends this voice of reason character away.
O’Neill herself has the makings of a fairly interesting character. She’s brilliant, yes … but she’s also self loathing and abrasive. She got a lethal dose of fallout during WWIII, and is thus dying and limited to a wheelchair. She’s also apparently obsessed with medevial Japan (I guess she’s OG Otaku). Milan goes out of his way to make O’Neill the opposite of the typical ‘generically female’ character. Of course, one could arguably wonder if O’Neill ventures too close to ‘shrew’ territory, but honestly I’d put her unlike-ability more towards the whole “mad scientist” thing than anything else.
But then she has sex with TOKUGAWA. Uh, kay.
See, O’Neill uses a cyberpunky brain-scanning helmet to go into weirdo VR realms so she can give TOKUGAWA lessons in samurai-ing. These aren’t limited to Japanese history– O’Neill and TOKUGAWA even take a brief trip to a VR Mezozoic Era, just so Milan could squeeze in some dinosaurs. Naturally, TOKUGAWA eventually falls in love with his creator and gives her a super-sexy cyberverse avatar body so they can do it in a rather explicit sex scene. And the funny thing is, it’s not even the books’ first or raunchiest one. I’ll just leave you with a single sentence from page 67:
“It had the consistency of half-set pudding.”
Incidentally, most prominent “mad scientist makes a monster and winds up having sex with it” story I can think of off the top of my head is the Rocky Horror Picture Show. Go fig.
Thankfully, these kinky cybersex things aren’t the main focus of the book. Rather, things start getting kind of Objectivist as things go on. See, the company O’Neill creates TOKUGAWA for is presented as a bunch of heroes for being so progressive, and therefore their rival megacorporation and government regulatory agencies hate them for it. So naturally, they’ve got to stop them– through the use of double agents and hired mercenaries. It’s something straight out of an Ayn Rand novel, just with more hired mercenaries. (Or maybe less, I never bothered reading Atlas Shrugged). O’Neill dies in the process, along with CEO of Good-Guy-Corp, and so TOKUGAWA must go on his SAMURAI REVENGE. Which … he does. Quite easily. The thing about a revenge plot is, the harder the battle is, the more satisfying the ending. Which is why Kill Bill took two whole movies to get everything wrapped up.
The Cybernetic Samurai is a messy, cynical book. Not that cyberpunk is exactly known for its idealisim, but the setting of this novel is ridiculously grim. The US has been shattered into several smaller countries after WWIII, while the rest of the world seems to be constantly at war. It’s honestly one of those settings that comes off as too catastrophic, as I can’t imagine how a world as fucked up as that could actually operate, much less on the scale needed to have internets and supercomputers and what have you.
Honestly, the unflagging grimness and general disdain for humanity made me give stop reading The Cybernetic Samurai about fifty pages from the end. I skimmed ahead a little, and, sure enough, the book ends with even MORE inferior government stooges attempting to use TOKUGAWA to their own ends, at which point TOKUGAWA decides to commit seppuku by blowing himself (along with said inferior government stooges) up with a nuclear warhead. While an ‘everybody dies’ kind of ending is certainly something that comes up in quite a lot of Samurai stories, there’s no sense of grand poetry to the ending of The Cybernetic Samurai. It’s just … there. Maybe I missed a bit by skipping the last chunk of the book, but honestly, glancing at the random pages, it seems like more of the same cyber-nihilism that made up most of the book prior. It’s enough to make me wonder just how badly Milan’s dinosaur books are going to end. (Spoiler alert: the dinosaurs go extinct)