The invasion has begun. The Luytens, starfish-esque alien creatures, have arrived, initially sequestering themselves in remote rural locations but now mustering their forces and attacking our infrastructure. The battle is… not going well. The Luytens have one secret weapon, in addition to their deadly heat and lightning rays, which all but assures their victory: telepathy, If you’re within 8km of a Luyten, it knows all about it – and so do all of its comrades within range. Pop up from behind cover to sneak a quick shot at one and it’s already aiming for the precise spot you’re thinking of putting your head. Game over man, game over.
Desperate times call for desperate measures. Having studied one injured Luyten, held in isolated captivity aboard a ship, far from its communication network, we discover that the telepathy depends on one crucial ingredient, the serotonin in our brains. No serotonin, no mind-reading. And so a team of scientists begin work on mankind’s last hope, a genetically-engineered breed of super-soldiers, the Defenders; towering, three-legged giants, designed to fight and hate the Luytens and utterly free of serotonin. Of course this renders them also bereft of emotions, creativity and everything else we take for granted, everything which makes us human. But they can fight. Oh boy, can they fight. And that might just pose a problem…
The above synopsis pretty much just takes up the first third of Defenders. Yes, the whole alien invasion, near-defeat of humanity and the epic battles resulting therefrom are merely setting the scene for what turns out to be a massively thoughtful and addicting read. Will McIntosh peppers his latest novel with a cast of conflicted characters who, over the span of several decades, must deal with not only the problem of contact with a technologically superior race, but also the consequences of our rash actions in defending ourselves. From Kai Zhou, the young boy who discovered and saved the injured Luyten known as Five, saved the world and yet became The Boy Who Betrayed The World, to Dominique Wiewall, head designer of the race who saved us and potentially architect of our downfall, there are no clear-cut heroes in this book. Everyone has their flaws and more importantly they all know it. As much of the book is dedicated to people wrestling their own demons as it is to the alien menace.
What’s more, McIntosh takes a very George RR Martin approach to character development. There’s no time for sentimentality here, this is a military sci-fi novel first ad foremost and he does not patronise his audience. War is brutal. People die. If it serves to move the story forward then heads must go on the chopping block, hero and villain alike. So don’t be surprised when you see someone you have grown to love chatting happily in one scene, only to learn of their death in a throwaway line five pages later. Nobody in Defenders has a magical Get Out Of Jail Free card.
Behind all the explosions and gunfire there is a lot of serious work going on. Defenders raises some big questions along the way, mostly relating to responsibility and facing up to the consequences of our actions. Whether on a personal scale or at the level where our choices could lead to extinction, McIntosh wants us to think about thinking, about weighing up alternatives carefully. And given the three races clashing throughout the novel – humans, Luytens and Defenders – you’ll find yourself pondering the old adage, is the enemy of my enemy really my friend. At every turn we find divisions between races which were once united and unity where once division reigned. This is not a clear-cut, black and white war like War Of The Worlds (to which the opening of the book seems to be a sincere homage). Race relations in Defenders are subtle, ambiguous and ever-shifting, much as they are in our own world.
I’ll admit that when I picked up Defenders, based on mentions on a couple of websites I frequent, I was expecting something of a pulpy, sci-fi invasion story. I’m very happy to report that what I experienced blew my expectations out of the water. This is a tale which very much deserves to join the likes of HG Wells’ aforementioned classic and Heinlein’s Starship Troopers in the canon of man vs aliens literature, managing to perfectly blend a compelling war story with a thoughtful examinations of the choices which arise in our darkest hours.