It’s 2029, and things aren’t looking good for the human race. Ever since the alien race known as the Luyten invaded Earth a few years ago, humanity has been fighting a losing war. Billions of people have died. The scattered survivors try to fight back, but their efforts are doomed from the start because the Luyten are telepathic: they always know when, where and how the next attack will happen. They use their electrocution and heating weapons with ruthless, impassive efficiency. The giant, starfish-shaped mind-readers appear to be an unstoppable foe.
It will take a miracle for the human race to survive and recapture their own planet. A miracle—or the Defenders….
I used to consider Will McIntosh one of the most underappreciated authors in science fiction. Now, I think it’s fair to reclassify him as a fast-rising star in the genre. McIntosh’s wonderful first novel, Soft Apocalypse, was a modest success, but his sophomore effort Hitchers, didn’t make as many waves as it could have. (My reviews can be found here and here.)
After Hitchers, Will McIntosh moved from embattled publishing house Night Shade Books to Hachette’s Orbit imprint. Love Minus Eighty (review), his first novel for Orbit, gained huge critical acclaim. And now Defenders, the author’s fourth novel, has already been optioned for a feature film by Warner Brothers.
It’s easy to see why: Defenders reads like a more intelligent and emotionally charged version of, well, countless alien invasion movies—think Independence Day with brains and lots and lots of moral grey. It’s vividly cinematic, at times uncomfortably brutal, and it reads like a runaway train.
Describing what’s so good about Defenders without giving away too many of the novel’s surprising twists and turns is incredibly hard. In a nutshell, the novel features three races. At the start of the novel, we only see two: the embattled human race that’s fighting a losing war against the implacable, telepathic alien race known as the Luyten. The third one only makes its appearance about 20% into the novel: the titular Defenders, a genetically engineered race of super-warriors created by the humans to battle the Luyten.
In an excellent The Big Idea post on John Scalzi’s Whatever blog, Will McIntosh draws a comparison between the Defenders and Frankenstein’s monster. The relevant paragraph cuts right to the heart of what makes this such a great novel:
I prefer Frankenstein to Dracula, for instance. Count Dracula is a bad guy, no doubt about it. Stab him in the heart and no one sheds a tear. But what are we supposed to feel as the Frankenstein monster burns? He kills people, he’s a psychopath, but he was thrust into the role of monster–he didn’t choose it. Maybe Victor Frankenstein is the villain of the piece, but here again, it’s complicated. The good doctor screwed up royally, but that wasn’t his intent, and intentions count when we’re judging good versus evil.
Why, yes. What could possibly go wrong if we created an army of sixteen-foot-tall independent and highly intelligent killing machines and then set them loose to fight on our behalf? Or, to be more specific, if we were forced to create them to preserve our very existence? And, to add another dab of grey to the moral complexity, what if the creatures we’re defending ourselves against were forced to leave their home planet and would really have preferred to settle here in peace?
Unnecessary prologues are one of my pet peeves, and unfortunately Defenders gets off to a false start with one: the desperate last stand of a run-down group of human soldiers against the Luyten is vividly described, but we never see any of these characters again. The scene sets the tone, but is otherwise completely disconnected from the story.
Fortunately, the novel picks up after this by introducing a set of fascinating characters and immediately kicking the story into high gear. Will McIntosh quickly switches between the perspectives of Oliver Bowen, Lila Easterlin, and Kai Zhou to show us various angles on the brutal war between humans and Luyten. A fourth character, Dominique Wiewall, joins the cast later in the novel.
Of the four, Oliver Bowen is probably the most interesting—and the trickiest. Oliver is a highly intelligent but socially awkward academic who gets plucked from his NYU position by the CIA. Due to war attrition, he is soon moved from Research to Interrogation, and then finds himself in charge of figuring out how to extract information from the world’s only Luyten captive.
Initially we see Oliver only from his own perspective, but thanks to his interactions with the telepathic Luyten, it gradually becomes clear that what first appeared as social awkwardness might be closer to something on the low end of the autistic spectrum. (It’s later mentioned in passing that he’s the son of two parents who met at an Asperger’s outpatient clinic.) In some of the most uncomfortable scenes in Defenders, the Luyten captive takes horrible advantage of Oliver’s internal insecurities by reading his and others’ minds and throwing all sorts of ugliness at him.
Lila is, by contrast, a relatively straightforward character: a teenager in the Georgia countryside whose life, like millions of others, is uprooted when the Luyten reach her village and chase her and countless other refugees into Atlanta. Kai Zhou starts out the novel homeless and orphaned, at first seemingly just another faceless victim of the Luyten invasion, but his story quickly takes a unique turn when he finds himself in contact with a wounded Luyten.
A fourth point of view character, Dominique Wiewall, doesn’t appear until about a third of the way into the novel, but it’s her role as the lead designer on the Defender project that truly sets off the novel’s plot. She’s also a great example of one of this novel’s many wonderful aspects: its diversity. Defenders is a rainbow of race, gender, nationality, personality type, and sexual orientation.
Will McIntosh has always written relatively straightforward, functional prose, closer in style to someone like Brandon Sanderson than, say, Catherynne M. Valente. The clarity of his writing style is perfect for a story like this one, as it allows the complexity of the characters’ difficult decisions to shine through without distracting the reader’s attention.
On the other hand, one of the author’s other main strengths I always look forward to—the development of the intense human relationships that continue to grow and evolve even under the most trying circumstances—doesn’t work quite as well here. The two romances feel almost shoehorned into the story, one as a means for the Luyten to manipulate Oliver, and the other—well, you’ll see.
Then again, maybe it’s understandable that this aspect of the novel is underdeveloped, as Defenders is really more focused on the relationship between entire races, not individual people. Still, it’s something McIntosh definitely explored more effectively in Soft Apocalypse and especially in Love Minus Eighty.
More importantly, there’s also a significant problem with believability here: it’s questionable that we could engineer and mass-produce an entire new race in short order even under the most peaceful circumstances, let alone in the middle of a gruesome worldwide war. You’d also think that, if this were possible, we’d see significant other advances in technology, but instead most of the world seems rather similar to the present day. Defenders requires some suspension of disbelief to work.
But, if you do accept Will McIntosh’s vision of the future as described in Defenders, you’re in for an experience that’s nothing short of gripping. The atrocities of war, and the role of the ordinary people who are forced into combat, are shown in an unforgettably visceral way. Some of those scenes are the literary equivalent of the D-Day landing scenes in Saving Private Ryan: shockingly brutal and painfully relatable.
The strongest facets of this novel are the nature of, and the relationship between, the three races. Starcraft-like, they each have their strengths and weaknesses. More importantly, the further you dig into this tale, the more they each develop a tragic sense of helplessness: we didn’t want to play this role, but we were forced into it. As the tables turn and turn, and turn again, you find something painfully familiar in even the most inhuman characters.
For that exact experience, I’ll gladly suspend disbelief. Will McIntosh is one of the brightest stars in science fiction right now. It’s wonderful to see how he continues to evolve: each of his novels—all standalones—are completely distinct from each other while somehow still sharing a common aesthetic. If you’re not reading him yet, you’re missing out.
This review was originally published at Tor.com on May 22nd, 2014.