(2014) Will McIntosh, Orbit, £8.99, pbk, 479pp, ISBN 978-0-356-50215-1
Will McIntosh first came to my attention in the pages of Interzone, with stories like Totem and Street Hero and The New Chinese Wives; and the novels Soft Apocalypse, which does what it says on the tin in that it is about a slow, more gentle version of the end of the world, and the romantic Love Minus Eighty. What is refreshing about these two novels and his latest, Defenders is that they are very different from each other (although they all have a romantic streak running through them), with McIntosh ploughing different furrows to seed very different crops. It is interesting that Defenders has appeared not long after the release of the Tom Cruise/Emily Blunt science fiction film Edge of Tomorrow which shares a similar theme of an alien invasion that appears unstoppable, in Edge of Tomorrow, the aliens can reset time, and restart the day, so that even when they have been losing the day before due to some unexpected offensive or brilliant tactical move, thanks to their Groundhog Day-trick they know what is coming on the next version of the new day and counteract it. Likewise, in McIntosh's novel the humans are also on a hiding to nothing because his alien invaders are telepathic and can read minds so know what the humans are going to do. So what are you going to about it when billions have already died fighting these ruthless foes, what can you do about it, well...
It is 2029 and the Luyten have arrived their ray guns capable of electrocuting or frying the populace and they have done this with ruthless abandon. What can be done to stop them, well it is time to create our own Frankenstein Monster, or open our very own Pandora's Box, let the genie out of the bottle, etc, etc, you get the picture, because in a remote laboratory on Easter Island, far away from the mayhem that is ensuing, scientists have discovered that the Luyten can read the minds of humans because of the neurotransmitter, serotonin, and have created an army of giant (sixteen feet tall and counting) organic, but machine-like creatures who are highly intelligent, almost unstoppable and equally ruthless, yet, strangely child-like in some of their thinking and the way they handle their emotions, probably because without serotonin they cannot feel joy or sadness, and while this seemed a good idea at the time, little thought has been given to what might happen if these “Defenders” actually won the war against the Luyten and now share a planet with you.
What unfolds over the decades of the novel is seen through the eyes of several characters: Oliver Bowen who is slightly autistic and ends up interrogating the only Luyten they have in captivity, known as Five because of what is left of his tentacled body, but when an alien can read your mind, interrogation can be a two-way street, especially for someone with Oliver's problems. Lila Easterlin is another major character, a teenager who is forced to flee into from the countryside into the city underseige that is what is left of Atlanta and because of what has happened to her and her family, she hates the Luyten, and embraces the Defenders. Kai Zhou is homeless and without friends or family and has no-one to turn to, except a wounded Luyten who for some reason has saved his life. While the fourth major character is Dominique Wiewall, leader of the team that creates the Defenders.
War is hell, and so is the peace, if there is to be one, in this thought-provoking novel that is graphic, tender, horrific with some wonderful set-pieces around the potential fall of humanity and the Defender fight back, so it is no surprise that this book has already been optioned for a film. Here. McIntosh moves up a gear into the 'epic' in terms of content and story span and away from the more personal content of his previous novels, and while it does not always come off all the time, it does make me look forward to reading more from him and seeing Defenders on the big screen. As the world's most reluctant reader, I'm also pleased to report that Defenders covers 91 chapters, plus a prologue and epilogue as well as a bonus section with an excerpt from Ann Leckie's Ancillary Justice, like that needs promoting.
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