Having stormed onto the scene with Soft Apocalypse, moved a great many with the heartbreaking Hitchers, and taken on relationships by way of Love Minus Eighty, Will McIntosh is back to asking the big questions in Defenders, a science fictional fable about humanity’s inherent barbarity which begins in the wake of an alien invasion.
It’s 2029, and our species is all but beaten. “Humanity had been whittled from seven billion to under four in a matter of three years. They were surrounded by the Luyten, crowded into the cities, starved of food and resources. All that seemed left was for the Luyten to wipe out the cities.” They don’t have to, however. Silly as it sounds, the Luyten are interstellar starfish with telepathic powers, so the second someone decides to do something, they’re aware. Accordingly, plans are pointless; plots to take back the planet are basically fated to fail. Hope, it follows, is almost a forgotten commodity.
But on isolated Easter Island, outwith the effective range of the invaders’ pivotal abilities, some scientists make a breakthrough that levels the playing field, finally. Thanks to a tame alien, and the orphaned boy he’s taken to talking to, they realise that serotonin—the same neurotransmitter which allows humans to feel happiness and sadness and so on—is tied to the telepathy that has allowed the Luyten to take over. Without serotonin, people would be practically catatonic, so removing the receptors it relies upon isn’t a sensible solution… but what if we could genetically engineer an army that has no need of this neurotransmitter?
With that in mind, the defenders are designed. Modelled after the monolithic statues on Easter Island, they’re produced with a single purpose: to be better soldiers than their opponents. And they are—stronger, smarter, faster fighters than the enemy. Indeed, they decimate the aliens in a matter of months:
Everyone was leaping in the air, kissing, hugging, laughing, crying, shouting. This was something they’d never seen before: Luyten being beaten. Being slaughtered by these giant warriors, these fearless, powerful creatures who were on their side.
That said, “by necessity, the defenders had been engineered to be fiercely independent, reliant on humans for nothing. It had worked—the plan had saved the human race, but no one had thought beyond defeating the Luyten.” What, one wonders, is to be done with a superabundance of supersoldiers when what’s left of the enemy has surrendered?
Why, give them Australia, I guess.
McIntosh’s is a promising premise, ably executed, but its proliferation, I’m afraid, is predictable. Defenders went exactly where I was expecting it to, albeit markedly faster than I had hoped: in short order, the Luyten threat is quelled, and in its place arises the question of the defenders. A question humanity answers with force, of course.
“What was it about humanity that always led it right back to killing as the solution to its problems?” asks Lila Easterlin, one of the narrative’s more memorable characters. An ambassador of sorts from the midpoint of the novel on, who hero-worshipped the defenders during the days of the invasion, she still strives to keep the peace between them and their oppressors—in other words us. Her duties are made more difficult when the defenders demand more than humanity is willing to give. Before long:
It was Armageddon. No one was going to win. There would be nothing left by the time it was over, nothing but piles of rubble, and a few bloodied humans, mangled Luyten, and burned defenders, still fighting.
Lila’s development over the twenty years Defenders documents is at the very least decent, as is McIntosh’s handling of the other major players, foremost amongst them Kai—who “carries the burden of being the Boy [Who Betrayed the World], but what was that, compared to a life, a father, a wife?”—and Five, the closest we come to a loveable Luyten.
Still, I struggled with the scattershot perspectives Defenders presents, for though McIntosh’s characters do change—and in multifarious ways—readers only rarely see them changing. Instead, we’re shown snapshots: portraits of Lila and Kai and Five before and after that as good as gloss over their stories’ most meaningful moments.
Add to that an ambitious narrative that is provocative and positively action packed, but which lacks, alas, enough of a focus on the moment-to-moment. Defenders isn’t a short novel by any stretch, but there’s so much going on that each of its three separate sections smacks of synopsis. Better that this book had been two; better for the narrative and better for the characters if the author had taken the time to address the little in addition to the large.
Will McIntosh’s fourth novel in four years is not, it follows, his finest. Though the message at the centre of Defenders—that violence is not the answer to every question—certainly deserves attention, the remainder of the fiction flails, feeling too rushed to be truly remarkable for all its evident intelligence.
Defenders is available now from Orbit.
Niall Alexander is an extra-curricular English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com. He’s been known to tweet, twoo.