Sometimes, after reading so much literary fiction, so much esoteric literature, so much finesse and its various accoutrements, a gal just has to have a helping of good old fashion military science fiction. Alien invasion! Plucky resistance! Mankind battling for survival!
Will McIntosh’s fourth novel, Defenders, certainly fits the bill. It begins in 2029, with the human race battling the Luyten, an extraterrestrial species with six evenly spaced appendages (suggesting their somewhat facetious nickname, “starfish”) and the ability to read the thoughts of their opponents within an 8 mile radius. When the enemy knows what you are thinking even as you are thinking it, it makes fighting them a pretty darned difficult thing to do. Mankind is losing, and losing bad. Something has to be done, and soon, or the entire human race may be wiped out.
Enter the defenders – genetically altered beings that are more than just super humans. They are literally fighting machines: three times the size of a typical man, with three legs for agility, embedded melee weaponry, an intelligence sharply focused on military strategy and, perhaps most importantly, without even a trace of serotonin – a naturally occurring neurotransmitter that, as author McIntosh points out, allows humans to “feel human”, gives us the capacity to “feel love, sexual desire, awareness, and interest in the world.” It is serotonin that triggers the Luyten’s ability to receive information from the human brain – it’s absence neutralizes their telepathic advantage. Sure, it makes them somewhat… detached, but with the fate of the world at stake, finesse and its various accoutrements are not all that important.
The fearsome defenders, the epitome of raging warrior, truly do seem to be the salvation of mankind. But at what price? What does the world do with a new race of beings, engineered for one purpose only, once the war is over?
Defenders is a very fast paced, hard hitting story, with an interesting premise that takes some very imaginative turns. Mr. McIntosh does a commendable job in evoking the horrors of conflict, and the determined mindset of an army that can only see defeat in the dawn of a new day is wrenching. He’s not afraid to describe the battlefield, not with superfluous gory detail, but with the unrelenting eye of a keen reporter. War is hell, no matter who is on the battle lines.
Unfortunately, a lot of the other sensibilities in the novel fall flat. Although the action takes place from 2029 to 2050, we see very little of a changed world. Other than “slates” – that sound a lot like current day tablets -nothing is unfamiliar. There are cell phones that work the same as they do now, recognizable trucks and tractors, and planes that would be familiar in our own skies. People still keep track of each other socially through Facebook. We hear of Targets, Hobby Towns, Office Depots. It’s not unrealistic, I guess, for these things still to exist, but it’s hard to accept that nothing new has come along, if not to replace them then at least to stand beside them.
And there is a naiveté as to technology and what is possible even today. If someone as technically challenged as myself can see credibility gaps with online security scenarios and leaving cyber footprints, as well as archaic instead of arcane gaming potentials, then it’s not a question of an adversary being “unimaginative”, it’s a question of a literary situation being unbelievable. Most futures seem to be brimming with possibility fueled by ingenuity and a drive to excel. The future as imagined in Defenders has very few options.
The characters don’t fare much better. Mr. McIntosh has written some potentially intriguing players in his story, but he fails to flesh any of them out; they are flat and biddable, uninteresting and narrow. After a promising start, the points of view get static and superficial, doing lip service to what should be emotionally wrenching story arcs, but instead feel more like watching a made-for-tv movie than a major motion picture.
Still, Defenders is a good action/adventure story when it actually deals with action and adventure. The battle scenes are gritty. The building of the conflicts and the turnabouts that occur, the movement towards a resolution – even a desperate one (perhaps especially the desperate ones) – are entertaining, even gripping. It’s not that Defenders is not a worthy book, it’s just a limited one. Read it knowing its limitations, and you’ll have a fine time.