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Literature / The Cobra Trilogy

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A series of books written by Timothy Zahn, which analyse and deconstruct the idea of Super Soldiers in a Space Opera setting. The original trilogy was written in The '80s. Twenty years later, a second trilogy "Cobra War" was written, followed by a (current) third, "Cobra Rebellion". The books are:

  • Cobra
  • Cobra Strike
  • Cobra Bargain
  • Cobra Alliance
  • Cobra Guardian
  • Cobra Gamble
  • Cobra Slave
  • Cobra Outlaw
  • Cobra Traitor

The series opens with the alien Troft having conquered two worlds from the Dominion of Man. Young Jonny Moreau volunteers to join the army, with a particular interest in organising guerilla resistance on the occupied worlds. Recognising his aptitude for this, he is shifted into the experimental Cobra programme, which equips soldiers with such wonders as implanted weaponry, unbreakable bones, servos that grant Super Strength and a nanocomputer that allows them to pull off complex moves and auto-target enemies. Crucially, none of this is obvious from the outside, allowing the Cobras to blend in with the general populace.

Only a part of the first book is devoted to the actual war. After the Trofts are defeated, suddenly humanity has to try and deal with the Cobras as they struggle to reintegrate into normal society. Sooner or later, accidents happen, and Moreau is responsible for the solution: creating colony worlds spearheaded by the Cobras on the other side of Troft space. Some years later, the "Cobra Worlds" are cut off from the Dominion of Man and must rule themselves. The later books follow the adventures of Moreau's Badass Family descendants as they deal with threats from the Troft and the lost human colony world of Qasama.


Contains examples of:

  • Always Someone Better: In Cobra Slave, the Cobras finally meet their match when Dominion Marines with more advanced technology are able to outfight them in a Curb-Stomp Battle. They are forced to resort to more subtle techniques.
  • Anvilicious: When Jonny comes back from the Troft war, he has a lot of trouble re-integrating into his sleepy hometown on his backwoods colony world. Not all of his Cobra equipment could be safely removed, so he still has his unbreakable bones, Super Strength, fingertip lasers, and nanocomputer with all its programming. His dad asks him to use his lasers to help out at the auto body shop, but Jonny doesn't feel up to using his lasers yet, the memories of the war are too fresh. The only jobs he can find are manual labor exploiting his cybernetic strength, and Jonny can't bring himself to stay in them for more than a few days at a time, which causes friction between him and his girlfriend (who'd been seeing someone else while Jonny was away). And people are afraid of him because they don't know what he can or will do, to the point where his brother even warns him against pointing his fingers at people (even though the fingertip lasers are in the pinkies, not the forefingers). Finally, some kids give Jonny trouble in a nightclub, and when he leaves, two of them try and run him over with their car (though they were just playing a variant of "chicken.") Jonny's nanocomputer includes combat reflexes and analysis programs, and determines that Jonny is under attack and responds by firing with the fingertip lasers, wrecking the car and killing the two teens inside in the crash. While punched up for the setting's science fiction setting, all this is clearly allegorical for the problems veterans returning from war have to deal with in trying reacclamate to civilian life. Given the first novel was written in the early 80s, it's likely referencing Vietnam veterans, though the allegory is just as valid for veterans of The War on Terror.
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  • Asskicking Equals Authority: Early on in the Cobra Worlds, Jonny Moreau had to prevent a coup by some Cobras who believed this trope gave them the right to rule. Even later on, a compromise is reached by which Cobras have a double vote in Cobra Worlds elections.
  • Badass Family: The Moreaus. Many of them are Cobras, and those that aren't are still badass in their own right.
  • Call a Rabbit a "Smeerp": The humans call grav lifts, well, grav lifts. The Troft call them floatators.
  • Call a Smeerp a "Rabbit": Spine leopards, which from their description are not actually that much like leopards.
  • Deadly Upgrade:
    • A side effect of the Cobra procedure is that Cobras suffer from premature arthritis, anaemia and other health issues, and this shortens their lifespan.
    • Taken to extremes by Fadil Sammon, who submits to drug procedures that briefly turns him into a war-winning human supercomputer, at the cost of permanently being left a quadriplegic...or he would be, had not Cobra conversion allowed him to walk again.
  • Death World: Caelian, largely because of the way its flora and fauna gang up on any unwelcome intruder.
  • Deus ex Machina: How the Moreaus escape being put on trial for treason at the end of Cobra Gamble (though an example of the trope on paper, it doesn't really feel like one due to how the twist is set up).
  • Everything Trying to Kill You: Caelian's biosphere.
  • Fantastic Drug:
    • The Qasamans have this as a secondary hat. The Qasamans routinely use a variety of drugs to enhance their intelligence and allow them to learn things rapidly. They work, but have negative side effects: overuse leads to premature ageing and in at least one case, quadriplegia.
    • Muninn (another lost colony world, enslaved by one of the Troft demenses) has bersarkis, made from a poisonous plant called bersark. Depending on how its refined, it can increase strength and endurance, send the user into a berserk rage, or do a few other things.
  • Fire-Forged Friends:
    • Merrick Moreau Broom and Carsh Zoshak. Especially interesting, since Merrick (possibly) outwitted Carsh in a battle of wits, then later lasered his car causing it to crash. A few battles against Trofts later, and they're thick as thieves.
    • To a lesser extent, Qasama and the Cobra Worlds after the Troft invasion.
  • Five-Man Band: As of Cobra War, the Moreau/Broom family becomes this:
    • The Leader: Cobra Jasmine "Jin" Moreau Broom, main character from the previous book, tends to be impulsive and intuitive.
    • The Lancer: Cobra Merrick Moreau Broom, eldest son, tends to counter Jin's impulsiveness with logic and reason.
    • The Big Guy: Cobra Paul Broom, Jin's husband, an older and more experienced Cobra who isn't suffering quite so badly from the age-induced side effects (yet).
    • The Smart Guy: Jody Moreau Broom, the only non-Cobra in the family, with a few college degrees under her belt. The Guile Hero in a family of guile heroes.
    • The Chick: Cobra Lorne Moreau Broom, empathetic and caring.
    • The Obi-Wan: Uncle Corwin Moreau, retired politician, who hosts the family's "war council" meetings over dinner at his estate.
  • Fun with Acronyms:
    • "Cobra" is actually an acronym for "Computerised Body Reflex Armament". The third word is important—Cobras rely on their nanocomputers giving them quick reflex responses to threats, which leads to tragedies when they try to rejoin civilian society.
    • Isis, Integrated Structural Implantation System.
    • Dominion of Man warships don't have a bridge, they have a Command Nexus/Coordination Hub, or "CoNCH."
  • Gambit Pileup: The result of both the Cobras and Qasamans having access to Chessmasters.
  • The Ghost: The first book mentions a second alien race, the Minthissti, who Jonny Moreau's father fought in an earlier war—we never get to see them.
  • Guile Hero: Every single Moreau. Seriously, every last one of them.
  • Hufflepuff House: Of the Cobra Worlds, most of the action takes place on Aventine, and we hear much about Caelian's lethal ecology before we actually get to see it. Palatine is only ever mentioned, and that sparsely, along with later Esquiline and Viminal.
  • Humans Are Divided: Come Cobra Slave, the Dominion of Man seeks to avert this trope. The Cobra Worlds would prefer to play it straight, thank you very much.
  • I Coulda Been a Contender!: Cobra Bargain introduces the Jects (short for Rejects), the Cobra trainees who received the surgery but washed out of the programme due to psychological issues and still have the sucky results of the treatment but none of the weapons or powers. Understandably they tend to fall under this trope.
  • Intelligent Gerbil: The Troft, with their beaks and throat bladders, look somewhat like humanoid chickens.
  • Jackie Robinson Story: Jin Moreau, the protagonist of Cobra Bargain, is the first female Cobra. A subversion of how this trope usually goes—she's also the last female Cobra as of the current series (set thirty years later), the experiment having been judged by the military establishment (somewhat unfairly, for political reasons) as a failure. As of Cobra Outlaw, her daughter, Jody, has also become a Cobra.
  • Le Parkour: Cobra combat reflexes have a number of maneuvers like this in their repertoire. Notably the "ceiling jump," where the Cobra jumps up to the ceiling, turning halfway around in midair, jumps off the ceiling to the floor (ideally behind whoever else was in the room), turning around to be back on their feet when the land and prepared to shoot people in the back. There's also the "wall jump," a quick way of navigating from a rooftop to the ground between two closely-spaced buildings (or, as Merrick finds out, trees), jumping from one wall to another while mostly upside-down, putting the antiarmor laser in the left leg in prime position to fire at whatever was chasing you off the roof.
  • Meaningful Name:
    • "Qasama" is derived from the Arabic word that became "kismet" in English, reflecting the fact that its people regard the fact that their colony ship went off course and reached the planet as being an act of fate.
    • "Muninn" is a variation on "Munin," the name of one of Odin's ravens in Norse Mythology, meaning "Memory." Not only do they have a strong Norse flavor, they have long memories.
  • My Hovercraft Is Full of Eels: Played with in Cobra Bargain when Jin is tutoring her younger sister in speaking Troft. According to Jin's Internal Monologue the potential mistake is actually fairly innocuous and she's playing it up to hold Cari's interest.
    "Again—and remember the aspirated-p in pierec'eay'khartoh this time. You pronounce it the wrong way to a Troft and he's either going to fall over laughing or else challenge you to a duel."
  • Mushroom Samba: Merrick has one with a side of Psycho Serum when he accidentally gets poisoned with bersark on Muninn.
  • No Biochemical Barriers: Discussed. Jonny and his wife are musing about the various hypotheses advanced for why all life in this area of the galaxy is biologically similar. While they admit that it's pretty convenient they can eat Cobra Worlds native flora and fauna, the reverse is rather inconvenient.
  • Not So Different: A running theme between the Cobra Worlds and Qasama (after Qasama's first appearance).
  • Only Known by Their Nickname: Jasmine Moreau is known to everyone as Jin.
  • Planet of Hats:
    • Qasama and paranoia. Partly cultural, partly the effects of their mojos. They also have quick learning and Fantastic Drug use (the former possibly due to the latter).
    • One of the few sci-fi settings where an alien race (the Trofts) have a better claim to the hat of "infighting factionalism" than humans themselves.
    • Muninn and slavery.
  • Polar Opposite Twins: Justin and Joshua Moreau. Identical twins, but always distinguished by the fact that Justin is optimistic to the point of naivete while Joshua is more cynical.
  • Punctuation Shaker: Troft names. Even the race's name itself would more accurately be transliterated "Trof'te".
  • Puppeteer Parasite: The mojos. . . sort of.
  • Scaramanga Special: York carries one of these in Cobra Strike.
  • Shout-Out: In Cobra Gamble:
    "You can drive one of those vehicles?" Rashida asked, sounding doubtful.
    "Sure," Jody said. "I mean, how hard can it be?"
  • Space Romans: The Qasamans are descended from Arab colonists and another lost colony appears later which seems to be descended from Scandinavian colonists.
  • Stay in the Kitchen:
    • While the Qasamans, being Space Muslims, are quite patriarchal in general, interestingly even the mainstream Dominion of Man seems to take this attitude to the military, not allowing women to serve even in non-combat roles. This isn't just Society Marches On, because militaries were already more open than this in The '80s when the first book was written. It may concern the later history of the Dominion, but has never been explicitly explained.
    • In Cobra Slave, the Dominion of Man military visits the Cobra Worlds after a hundred years, and some of its members are contemptuous about the more prominent role women play in Cobra Worlds society.
  • Strange-Syntax Speaker: [The Trofts, they talk like this. The noun, they place it first].
  • Stranger in a Familiar Land: Why the Cobras find themselves heading out to the colonies after the war.
  • Super Soldier:
    • Besides their Super Strength, unbreakable bones and computer-aided reflexes and targeting, Cobras are armed with two antipersonnel lasers in their little fingers, a heavy antiarmor laser in their left shin that fires out of the bottom of their left foot, a sonic weapon and an electrical arcthrower.
    • Later the Qasamans attempt to create a counterpart to the Cobras, the Djinni. Though limited by the Qasamans' inferior technology (no nanocomputer reflexes or unbreakable bones) they wear suits made of the native krisjaw hide which provide armor and house servos and lasers with the same capability as the Cobras'. They are also implanted with filters in their noses which allow them to throw around gas canisters with abandon and not suffer the ill effects.
  • Technology Marches On:
    • It's subtle, but you can tell the first trilogy was penned in The '80s, such as references to magnetic tapes. The more recent ones by contrast are influenced by more modern technologies, such as the Troft using unmanned reconnaissance drones.
    • In the Cobra Rebellion trilogy, this is reflected in-universe, with the Dominion of Man being a hundred years more advanced than the isolated Cobra Worlds, and 'new' Dominion technologies being more influenced by what is current now, such as augmented reality implants in eyes.
  • Theme Naming:
    • The Cobra Worlds are named after the Seven Hills of Rome: Aventine, Palatine, Caelian, Esquiline and so on.
    • Most members of the Moreau family have names that start with J; the few that don't, such as Corwin, tend to be the non-Cobras in the family.
  • Twin Switch: On the first mission to Qasama in Cobra Strike, they plan to do this with Justin and Joshua Moreau, one of whom is a Cobra and the other isn't, in order to conceal the existence of Cobras from the Qasamans—they can scan the non-Cobra one, and then he'll be replaced with the Cobra. Fails epically because the Qasamans put a fake bomb on one twin with concealed cameras, meaning they see the switch happen.
  • The Unpronounceable and Overly Long Name: Troft names. They recognise this and generally go by descriptive aliases when dealing with humans.
  • Unfinished, Untested, Used Anyway: The Cobras themselves. Jonny and his fellow recruits are warned point-blank that as First Generation Cobras, they'll bear the brunt of any design flaws in the system the designers didn't get worked out. And indeed, by the time he's in his forties, Jonny is suffering from anemia and arthritis thanks to the bone laminae interfering with blood cell production and the servomotors damaging his joints. He also has immune system trouble as his body starts rejecting the implants. Interestingly, the same fate befalls the next generations of Cobras in the Cobra Worlds, either because they don't have the technology to refine the process, or the politicians don't care enough to allocate the necessary funds for research.
  • Unspoken Plan Guarantee: Played almost painfully straight. Whenever the characters discuss a plan on-page, it's almost assured it will fail miserably. If they discuss a plan off-page, it will almost certainly work without a hitch. Since the villains are almost never seen discussing their plans on page, their plans work almost flawlessly, and the heroes only succeed by out-gambiting them.
  • We ARE Struggling Together:
    • The Trofts operate as loose coalitions of their constantly-infighting desmense groups, and even when allied are always jockeying for position, not always showing weakness or sharing information with their allies.
    • The Cobra Worlds themselves, and Qasama, after the Troft invasion.
  • Worthy Opponent: The Moreaus' opinion of Qasaman Magnificent Bastard Moffren Omnathi.
  • Xanatos Speed Chess: As one of Timothy Zahn's favorite tropes, this appears in just about every single conflict, whether it's personal, military, or political.

Alternative Title(s): Cobra