With Defenders, Will McIntosh Goes Big

What do you do when telepathic aliens invade Earth? You can't fight them: They know what you're doing almost before you do. You can't use robots against them, because they can't improvise. You can't surrender: They're trying to take your place. To save themselves from the Lutyen invasion, humanity creates the Defenders.

Based on a short story from Lightspeed Magazine, Defenders by Will McIntosh is a troubling, brilliant look at what lengths we'll go when our back is to the wall, and how those choices can come back to haunt us.

Some spoilers ahead.

Humanity is being continually pushed back by the Lutyens. They're starfish-like aliens who arrived at Earth with intentions to make it a new home, only realizing that it was inhabited once they were committed to the journey. They're telepathic, and reading us, they knew what our reaction would be: fight. Upon landing, they began a low-intensity war to gain a foothold. Humanity found itself on the ropes, and turned to desperate measures to survive: the Defenders.

It's a little like the premise of last year's Pacific Rim: "To fight monsters, we created monsters," read one of the taglines. Here, machines and robotics wouldn't cut it: they can't improvise to the level that's needed to combat the aliens. So, the Defenders were grown. Based on human DNA and 16 feet tall with three legs, they have no serotonin, preventing the invaders from reading their minds. It's effective, but leaves them with some crippling drawbacks: they're stunted emotionally, maintain a violent sense of ego and a lack of humor. Designed with an intense hatred of the Lutyen, they're deployed to the battlefield as a sort of fifth column. Highly intelligent, trained for warfare and armed to the teeth, they're set apart from the humans they've been built to protect. Unable to read their new enemies, the Lutyen are slowly beaten back, until they surrender.

And then, we reach the end of the first third of the novel, where McIntosh shifts into high gear. The Defenders, heroes after the war, are given the entire continent of Australia. The surviving Lutyen are handed over to them, and the continent is closed off to outsiders. Fifteen years later, humanity is invited back, only to find that their saviors now want more — and that we're not willing to live alongside the weapons we built.

A number of years ago, I wrote a column on io9 about how military SF never quite picks up the deep background elements of how war is conducted, and it's nice to see a book that does just that. In Defenders, McIntosh has put together an incredible novel about warfare and its lasting effects, one that poses some incredibly difficult questions along with a great story.

As with some of his other books, McIntosh lays out the action in short, choppy chapters that jump from character to character, which makes this 500+ page book a quick read. There's Oliver Bowen, a conscripted CIA operative who's tasked with interrogating a captured Lutyen, Fives, the only member of the species who's regularly spoken with humans. There's Kai Zhou, the 'Boy Who Betrayed the World', saved Fives and later spoke extensively with him, and there's Lila Easterlin, a girl at the time of the invasion who's traumatized by the violence, who eventually becomes a geneticist. A fourth, Dominique Wiewall, the principal designer of the Defenders, who has a growing role in the novel as it progresses. Each of these characters start off in vastly different places at the start of the book, living their own lives, but as the pages fly by, they come together. Oliver meets Kai and eventually adopts him. Kai meets Lila and eventually marries her. It's an interesting, interconnected weave of personalities that truly develop in their own arcs as the book progresses and form an excellent set of viewpoints for the story that plays out.

This is McIntosh's chief strength with his novels, and he's a master at it: take a cast of characters and bring them together despite their surrounding problems. I was most reminded of his first novel Soft Apocalypse and its long timeline. Along the way, he explores some very familiar themes: how does society cope with such massive upheaval? How do its people cope? Humanity in 2029 starts off at one point, and ends up completely changed by the end. At the same time, McIntosh explores how, while there's war, fascism, death and destruction, most people simply want to live their lives. Oliver, throughout most of the book, tries to cope with his divorce from his wife.

The other key strength of the novel is the book's central question: what is the outcome of our desperate choices? The Defenders, created in the heat of battle, have no thought to what comes after. Such problems have frequently played out in our own military history: the creation of firearms led to enormous changes on the battlefield; the development of nuclear warheads, which alternatively brought us the Cold War and the Apollo program, and so forth. There's an outstanding moment when a Defender is proudly showing off its artwork to a visitor. It's an accomplishment for Erik, but to Lila's eyes, it's as crude as a child's drawing. It's not Erik's fault: his hands were designed to hold guns, not paint brushes. Similarly, their neural makeup has left the Defenders emotionally stunted: they react violently to criticism, are pathologically needy for appreciation and admiration, and carry with them a burning hatred for the Lutyen, whom they imprison and enslave. When they decide that they want to integrate fully into human society, their reaction at being rejected feels justified.

Humanity's troubles with their own creations evoke memories of Frankenstein and similar stories. To combat the Lutyen, we turn to horrifying lengths to survive. The Defenders instilled with a fanatical racism that ultimately leads to a campaign of genocide and slavery after the war ends. When the Defenders change their focus, everything we put into them comes back to hunt us down. The Defenders are everything we feel we need, but can't live with. Once they're out of service, they're isolated in Australia, and when they decide to return, they can't.

Throughout all of this, the Lutyen present a terrifying enemy to confront, and eventually, to sympathize with. When we first meet them, they're horrifying: they're fast and work in small teams to fry civilians. More terrifyingly, they're telepaths, and very manipulative. In short order, they've taken over large parts of the world. When the tide turns and they tender their surrender, there's a visceral relief that the danger is over, even as it's clear their treatment is going to be very bad. When things get worse for humanity again, we once again go to terrifying measures to survive and for a bit of redemption.

In many ways, I found Defenders to be for McIntosh what Godzilla is to Garth Edwards: it's their widescreen introduction to the world. McIntosh got his start with his fantastic novel Soft Apocalypse back in 2011, a short novel with an intimate story about a group of friends making their way through a declining Southern landscape as a new one took its place. It was small, raw and brilliant, not unlike a smaller budget indie film. Now, McIntosh has gotten the big budget, cast and marketing, and for the most part, he pulls it off.

Of all of McIntosh's books (Soft Apocalypse, Hitchers, Love Minus Eighty, and Defenders) deal with societal change and coping, but Soft Apocalypse and Defenders feel as though they're the most closely related. McIntosh covers a lot of ground with Defenders: all at once, it's a military science fiction story, it's a cautionary tale about the consequences of our choices and it's a family and political drama, and at points, it feels as though it's got a little too much going on. I keep thinking back to Soft Apocalypse, a stripped down, raw and positively brilliant novel that packs an emotional punch throughout. Defenders is a bit more tame, less rough around the edges, and some of that intensity is missing: when a character sort of vanishes at one point, I never had that real, hard-hitting emotional reaction that I had in the other book.

Regardless, Defenders is a strong, excellent book. It's complicated, engaging and far-reaching, asking hard questions and never pulls its punches. On top of all that, it's got a bit of everything for everyone: great military elements, biological cautionary tales, great characters, nuanced political commentary and a story that makes me want to read it all over again.