How do you fight an enemy that can read your every thought, and another that has been designed and bred for war? In 2029, according to Will McIntosh’s novel Defenders, that’s the most impending question humanity needs to answer if it wants to survive.
Having achieved critical acclaim in 2013 with Love Minus Eighty, McIntosh’s newest novel is a fast-paced and visceral exploration of morality and war. Earth has been invaded by the Luyten, a race of enormous starfish-like aliens that can read your mind. They can know what you are going to do before you do it, and know where you are, despite your best efforts to hide yourself. It doesn’t come as a surprise then that humanity’s war efforts against the invasion have been nullified and three billion people have perished from the war. Even when hope has been all but lost, a daring military project stationed at Easter Island creates humanity’s last attempt at survival: The Defenders. These genetically-engineered beings with heads shaped as the famous Easter Island ones have created and bred with a single purpose in mind: purging the Luyten menace. Their success might come at higher cost than anticipated however.
It’s important that you don’t take the worldbuilding elements at face value. It takes a certain amount of suspension of disbelief to believe that after losing three billion people to an alien race incredibly well-suited for war, humanity is still able to embark on a technological project of such a big scale. I argue though that in this particular novel, it doesn’t matter. Defenders isn’t a science fictional novel trying to extrapolate what’s next for humanity technologically, or how future technology might impact us as human beings. It instead intends to explore more personal themes, such as whether intent has any bearing in making morality judgments, and it uses a science fictional world that lets such exploration blossom for that purpose, regardless of whether such a world is remotely possible.
It is interesting to note, as an aside, that McIntosh’s thesis here is diametrically opposed to that of another author I’m currently reading: K.J. Parker. Where McIntosh would hint that Frankenstein isn’t wholly evil because he never intended for his monster to become, well, a monster, Parker would argue that intent is irrelevant and that outcome is what’s important in determining whether something is evil or not. I feel that these intriguing explorations of morality have lately been a major thematic building block in our genre as of late, though why that is so is a question I leave for another person to answer. Defenders is a worthwhile entry in that long conversation between fictional works.
Will McIntosh writes in a functional and clear prose that lends itself well to a fast-paced read. Other reviewers have compared it to Brandon Sanderson’s style, and I think the comparison is apt. The theme and the characters’ struggles are stated in the simplest of ways, and you never feel as if you have to reread a certain sentence to parse the meaning of it. It also doesn’t let you escape from experiencing the visceral nature of war and its aftermath, something that is made abundantly clear throughout the novel.
Defenders has a certain onion-like quality to it. At its surface you can read it as a run-of-the-mill military scifi book with alien races fighting it out in violent battles to the death, but as you peel apart layer after layer, you discover new nuances on themes that you thought you had known everything about. It has been a while now since I read McIntosh’s novel, and even now as I sit here writing this review, new intriguing thoughts come unbidden that I feel are worth exploring. Who cares if you have to suspend disbelief to enjoy it, or if some character interactions are unsatisfyingly shoehorned in when they could have been left out entirely? A novel that keeps you thinking about it long after you’ve read it is a good novel by my book. Wholly recommended.
The novel Defenders was based on Will McIntosh’s short story of the same name which was published in Lightspeed Magazine. You can read it here.
I purchased this when it was on sale recently. I’m looking forward to it. McIntosh is a psychology professor, so I have something in common with him and expect to enjoy his work.