Defenders cover

Review: Defenders by Will McIntosh

Picture, if you will, the unstoppable war machine of this particular grim future: seventeen feet tall, mounted atop three legs, with a face like the Moai of Easter Island. Large and strange and thus terrifying but also fundamentally absurd: a terribly threatening creature that, through the lens of fiction, we struggle to take seriously.

This is not all there is to the eponymous ‘defenders’. Their minds are also constructs: deprived by design of the neurotransmitter serotonin, the defenders do not understand emotion and are not aware of the world in the same way as the humans they are distantly based upon. Despite genius-level IQs, training from birth in all aspects of military strategy and tactics and a ferocity that matches their strength, they are in many respects child-like and hungry for approval.

Their lack of serotonin offers their greatest strength against the Luyten, the alien enemy they were designed to fight. These alien super-telepaths have all but conquered Earth, driving the human race to the brink. Ordinary human soldiers never stood a chance; their minds were open books to the Luyten, who were able to anticipate every action against them from troop movements to shots fired.

The defenders cannot be read and they are built for war. They are larger, faster and stronger than the Luyten. Their training, knowledge and intelligence allows them to operate autonomously, without human input. It was the only way they could possibly work, as their human parents might unknowingly reveal plans to the enemy. Yet even if they win and mankind can be saved, the question of what happens next remains to be answered.

This is a surprisingly emotionally engaging novel for what is essentially a cross-breed of two traditional SF tropes: the invasion of Earth and the unforeseen consequences of scientific progress. One of Will McIntosh’s greatest successes with Defenders is how he evokes mood, skilfully matched to the challenges both humanity and his human characters face throughout the novel’s course. Fear is prevalent, as are despair and a sense of impending doom. Periods of fragile hope run along a knife-edge balance before erupting into elation. Moments of violence are often all the more shocking for how they are introduced.

Such emotional richness should come as little surprise to prior readers of McIntosh and it is also central to the novel’s themes. The defenders, deprived of serotonin, lack a sophisticated emotional core. Outside of conflict they struggle with how they should live, imitating their ‘parent’ species in manners that are variously laughable and terrifying. The Luyten, possessing individual yet shared consciousness, are a hyper-empathic species despite their callously violent actions. Mankind sit somewhere between the two: capable of great emotional majesty but divided and ruled by fear. The balance between such conflicts provides much of the book’s drive on both a micro and macro level.

It is not without flaws, as is true of any novel. McIntosh fails or chooses not to address some difficult moral and ethical issues thrown up by this war for species survival. Regardless, this is an engaging, thought-provoking and occasionally frightening read.

[This review was published in issue 279 of Vector, the critical journal of the British Science Fiction Association. This version of the review should be identical to the print version.]

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