It is 2029 and first contact has arrived in the form of the Luyten. These large, star-shaped aliens drop from their vessels at a sprint, unleashing hell, driving people into the cities, always more than one step ahead of their human enemy because, it is discovered, they are telepathic. One careless strategic thought will race like wildfire, costing lives, many millions it is believed, spreading despair. When all hope seems lost, scientist Dominique Wiewell manufactures the Defenders – organic yet machine-like warriors, three legged for speed, giant in size, unable to procreate, stunted in imagination, always hungry, deadly. Humans watch in gratitude and joy as the Defenders tear the Luyten apart. One might have expected that this would be the end of the crisis. Far from it.
Defenders presents the story of mankind’s fight for survival through the perspectives of four key individuals – Oliver Bowen, an increasingly important adviser to the American President who finds himself in the unlikely position of being almost a confidante to a captured, tortured Luyten known as Five due to the number of his remaining limbs; Kai Zhou is a child, so recently an orphan, in hiding from the Luyten but whose life one of their number bizarrely saved; Dominique Wiewell is the mother of the Defenders; Lila Easterlin becomes Dominique’s protégé, a girl who has great cause to hate and fear the Luyten and is cherished by the Defenders.
All of them will have cause to re-evaluate their feelings towards both Luyten and Defender. All of them will experience the absolute terror that both Luyten and Defender inflict. There is a moment in the novel when Lila and a group of emissaries see a Luyten coming towards them. Each of them turns and runs. There’s no explanation to the reader, no time for thinking, they turn on their heels and they run for their lives. This was one of the many moments in Defenders when I knew I was reading a book I won’t forget. Another is when Lila hugs her Defender ‘Special Friend’ Eric and he cries, wishing he had a mother. By contrast, there is the scene when a Defender is acting on stage and rips a man’s guts out for laughing (at something else entirely) during his great speech.
The novel moves through years of struggle, one threat replaced by another, old enemies rehabilitated though torturous overtures, suspicion of all rife, everyone deeply frightened though years of violence, misunderstandings, carelessness. The reader doesn’t expect to feel sympathy for a Luyten anymore than he or she might be expected to shed a tear for a Defender, but such is the power of Will McIntosh’s writing there’s a good chance that the reader will do just that.
Death is random, fear is constant.
The depiction of the relationship between humans and their created Defenders is fascinating but for me the highlight is the relationship between humans and Luytens. I think this is extraordinary. The difficulties of communicating can only make matters worse but when Luytens do try and talk to humans how far can they be believed? How far can humans be believed? The opening third of the novel makes it plain how aggressive these aliens are. Billions of humans are slaughtered. Can this harm be forgiven? Should it? Who is to blame is a major question of Defenders and our answer to it may shift and crumble repeatedly though these marvellous pages.
It is impossible for me to do justice to Defenders. Packed into its 500 pages is an explosion of drama, emotion, action, pain, thrills and questions – questions about who we are as people and our prejudices or acts of cruelty against the unfamiliar (expressed here in a Defender’s matter of fact explanation of why humans made Defenders with three legs not two). Last year I was captivated by Will’s Love Minus Eighty, an emotional mix of clever science fiction with social satire, and as a result Defenders was a priority read for me. I started it the day it was published as an ebook (ahead of its paperback release next week) and, despite its length, I finished it the next day.
Defenders is a stunning book and, without doubt, it is my favourite first contact novel. It is not only thrilling and exhilarating, it’s painful and moving, extremely clever and rewarding, full of ideas and populated by characters you can’t help caring for and feeling for, even those you feel you shouldn’t. What a writer! More, please!
Love Minus Eighty