Defenders, Will McIntosh. Orbit, May 2014, ISBN 9780316217767. Reviewed by Liz Bourke.
Defenders is Will McIntosh’s fourth novel. It’s also the first work by McIntosh (who won the 2010 Best Short Story Hugo) I’ve ever read, and I’m impressed and disappointed in about equal measure. Impressed, because McIntosh is an immensely readable writer, with a strong grasp of pacing and tension, and the techniques that keep a reader turning pages. McIntosh isn’t unambitious in this story of alien invasion, desperate struggles for survival, and their consequences — twenty-one years pass in under five hundred pages.
But his reach exceeds his grasp, and that’s where the disappointment lies. The alien invasion story is one that the reader has seen many times before, ranging from — in recent years alone — the thoughtless war porn of John Ringo to Andrea K. Höst’s award-winning And All The Stars, and from E.E. Knight’s post-apocalyptic Vampire Earth to TV series like V, Falling Skies, and Defiance — among others. The familiarity of its tropic landscape does Defenders no favours: although it’s clear that McIntosh is trying to complicate the alien invasion narrative, to bring more closely into view the ethical questions of survival and genocide, hatred and acceptance, betrayal and complicity, he never quite succeeds in bringing his thematic arguments to the sharp and bleeding edge.
Ultimately, he allows the emotional weight of his thematic questions to peter out in confusion. Ultimately, he plays it safe.
There are four significant point-of-view characters in Defenders. We meet Kai and Lila first as traumatised adolescents, in the middle of the alien invasion. The Luyten are telepathic, between themselves and also with humans, and the humans are losing — badly. Kai is the first human spoken to voluntarily by a Luyten. Lila sees her life fall apart and conceives a strong emotional attachment to humanity’s last, best hope for survival. Oliver and Dominique are adults: Oliver is a CIA analyst who is responsible for communicating with their Luyten captive, the alien who spoke to Kai, who calls itself “Five”; and Dominique is a geneticist who’s part of the team responsible for creating humanity’s last best hope for survival, the defenders. Post-human highly-intelligent killing machines immune to Luyten telepathy, they rapidly turn the war in humanity’s favour.
This has disastrous consequences some fifteen years after the Luyten surrender, when the defenders decide that they deserve more out of the settlement than they received. One thing leads to another, and the defenders conquer the remainder of humanity, subjugating both humans and Luyten. Lila, now a geneticist and married to Kai, is forced to work for humanity’s saviours-turned-conquerors. Oliver is hiding in plain sight, while Dominique is on the run with the last of the unconquered humans, looking for a way to fight back.
Then the Luyten approach Lila and Kai with the news that the defenders plan to kill two-thirds of the remaining human population, and offer alliance. Can old enemies work together to overcome the new?
The first third to three-quarters of Defenders are solid, tense, emotionally engaging. McIntosh sets up powerful emotional questions — but he fails to give his aliens personality and definition, so that when it comes to the clinch, to human and alien working together despite the history of hatred and mistrust, the Luyten are still more symbol than solid. The initial powerful thematic argument about genocide and hate gets lost, for McIntosh forces the thematic argument too far. At the crux, human and Luyten and defender are playing out old human stories: slavery and genocide, obvious metaphors for historical oppressions. The artistic possibilities of pain become a confused bludgeon, rather than a razor-point.
In many ways, the shape of this novel and its conclusion is rather conservative. Defenders in an entertaining read, but it’s not doing anything new. Personally, I’d hoped for a little more.