Orbit, 2014, 512 pages
When Earth is invaded by telepathic aliens, humanity responds by creating the defenders. They are the perfect warriors--seventeen feet tall, knowing and loving nothing but war, their minds closed to the aliens. The question is, what do you do with millions of genetically-engineered warriors once the war is won?
A novel of power, alliances, violence, redemption, sacrifice, and yearning for connection, DEFENDERS presents a revolutionary story of invasion, occupation, and resistance.
The Luyten, a race of telepathic giant starfish, come to Earth in a generation ship. Refusing to communicate with mankind, they initially hide behind the moon, prompting paranoia and a first strike from Earth that destroys their mothership. The Luyten descend to Earth en mass, initially hiding out in the wilderness and attacking humans at the edges of civilization, then escalating their attacks as their superior technology and telepathy allow them to wipe out human armies despite humanity's vast numerical advantage. Eventually, they seem to be waging a campaign of genocide, and the final evacuation of Washington, D.C. as the Luyten close in with their "heaters" reads much like a modernized version of War of the Worlds.
It is not viruses that stop the aliens, however, but a race of genetically-engineered super-soldiers that humanity cooks up at the last minute. The Defenders are giants with genius IQs, three legs to allow them to outrun the Luyten, and an immunity to the aliens' telepathy, which also makes them unable to feel joy or humor. (The pseudo-science explanation for the Luytens' telepathy is that they can read the synaptic activity in human brains caused by serotonin.)
Once the Luyten are defeated, however, Earth's problems are not over. The scientists who created the Defenders didn't really think past the current existential threat. Now that the war is over, they're left with a devastated planet, several million Luyten POWs, and a race of giant super-soldiers with no sense of humor and nothing to do.
That's only the first half of the book, and things get worse from there.
Defenders was clearly written with a catalog of how-to-write books and workshop advice in mind. It starts with a compelling hook, moves from action to action, with one twist after another ramping up the threat level, jumps between a diverse cast of POV characters, and tries not to ever slow down enough to give the reader a chance to think through some of the implausibilities.
Although this could have been just a big stupid sci-fi epic, I liked it very much. The characters are compelling, including (especially) the non-humans. We meet a captured Luyten called Five early on, and through him/it, learn that the Luyten are people too, and possibly they are as diverse and flawed as humans, and just as prone to making epic mistakes.
The Defenders are Frankenstein monsters writ large - very large. Their adoration of their creators turns to hatred when they feel betrayed and disrespected. By the end of the book, there are three races that all have good reason to hate each other, and who have fought a series of devastating wars because of paranoia, misunderstandings, and mistrust.
There were some parts of the book I found unsatisfying. I really wanted to learn more about the Luytens' point of view. They turn out to be much more civilized, superior, and "human" than they initially appeared. They eventually apologize for their initial atrocities, and claim they never intended to actually exterminate humanity, but their explanation for why they just dropped out of the sky and started killing is never very convincing. The way mankind rolls over for the Defenders (particularly when they ask for Australia (!!!)) but then launches a preemptive strike against a superior foe and then apparently never anticipates the response that I thought was totally obvious also struck me as implausible.
There are quite a few suspensions of disbelief required, and a lot of unanswered questions in the end, but I still found Defenders a fun, exciting, yet more thoughtful than expected alien invasion novel.
Verdict: Defenders is, on the surface, a typical cinematic alien invasion novel with a lot of big ideas and major suspensions of disbelief required. But the aliens are interesting, the human characters are each individuals with personal concerns but large roles to play, and the constant action makes this a page-turner. Highly enjoyable and recommended for anyone who liked the movie versions of War of the Worlds or Independence Day.
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