The Big Idea: Will McIntosh
Posted on May 15, 2014 Posted by John Scalzi 15 Comments
The Bad Guys: You know ’em, you hate ’em. But there’s also some truth in the saying that everyone is the hero of their own story — and that it’s not always clear cut that in a conflict one side is purely good and the other purely evil. Will McIntosh wrestled with the ideas of villains and heroes for his novel Defenders; here’s what he found out.
I don’t particularly like stories with villains. I prefer the good and bad in characters to be more a matter of degree, and, ideally, subject to individual interpretation.
I prefer Frankenstein to Dracula, for instance. Count Dracula is a bad guy, no doubt about it. Stab him in the heart and no one sheds a tear. But what are we supposed to feel as the Frankenstein monster burns? He kills people, he’s a psychopath, but he was thrust into the role of monster–he didn’t choose it. Maybe Victor Frankenstein is the villain of the piece, but here again, it’s complicated. The good doctor screwed up royally, but that wasn’t his intent, and intentions count when we’re judging good versus evil.
When I set out to turn my short story “Defenders” into a novel, I didn’t want one species to be the clear cut villains. This was challenging, because the alien Luyten invade Earth, unprovoked, electrocuting and melting billions of people. The path of least resistance would have been to cast the Luyten in the role of villain, but I wanted things to be more ambiguous.
Without giving too much away, there are three species in Defenders: 1) humans, 2) the invading Luyten, who can read human minds, and 3) the defenders, genetically-engineered warriors humans create to battle the Luyten.
My aim was to weave a story where at various points each of these players feels backed into a corner, with no choice but to lash out. Often they do have a choice, but their nature, their limitations, lead them to conclude they don’t.
To partially absolve the Luyten, for example, I created a backstory where they were forced to flee their home planet, and spent decades heading toward Earth–the closest viable refuge. It never occurred to them that Earth might be inhabited by another sentient species, and when they arrived and surreptitiously sampled humans’ minds, they realized humans didn’t have the constitution to share their world with millions of clairvoyant aliens. They decided their options were to invade, or perish.
As the story unfolds, the defenders make a strong case as the villains of the piece. They have the emotional maturity of adolescents, they’re socially inept, and they’re apt to fly into a violent rage over petty grievances. Whose fault is that, though? They were made that way. They were created to be warriors, knowing and loving nothing but war. They’re Frankenstein monsters.
The defenders are also war veterans, and my hope is that this makes them sympathetic as well. Without their sacrifice, humanity might have ceased to exist.
Does that make humanity, who created the defenders, the real villains? Well, what choice did they have? Clairvoyant aliens had invaded, and were wiping them out. They had to do something, and fast.
Which brings us full circle, back to the Luyten.
My hope is readers will feel that a case can be made for any of the three species being most responsible for the cataclysm that unfolds.
While there are unquestionably villains in the world, I think most human conflict takes this form, where the villain of the story depends on your perspective. While I was planning this post, my wife reminded me of the ever-shifting alliances in the novel Nineteen Eigthy-Four, where Oceania is at war with Eurasia and allied with Eastasia on one day, and allied with Eurasia and at war with Eastasia the next. Yes; one day someone is your sworn enemy, the next, they’re your ally. Maybe that’s why I’m uneasy writing about villains.
Defenders: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s
Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.
Hush now, wishlist, it’s okay, it’s just one more itsy bitsy little title to swallow, you’ll feel all better once you do. It’s all right, wishlist, one more little title won’t make you spill over your EOF.
Wow…the Nook Book on Barnes and Noble is only 2 bucks. Awesome!
Clairvoyant AND telepathic?
–I’m not moved to sample this.
I absolutely love Will McIntosh books. He has a flair for doing original stories and ideas in a science fiction setting.
Sold. Never read anything by you, but happy to give it a try based on your essay here. Moral complexity for the win!
Sounds like an interesting tale with some thought behind it… Have to ask though: how do you reconcile utterly alien life evolving umpteen jillion lys apart with mind reading?
Interesting concept. I am not always moved to dip my toe into these but will add this to the list.
I was going to buy it, but my policy of holding publishers accountable for typos in their book descriptions must be applied without fear or favor. Self-published, traditionally published, it’s all the same: if you can’t be bothered to proof your marketing copy, I have insufficient confidence in your editorial abilities to give you my money.
The quality of editing does seem to be getting more variable, especially in the “inexpensive ebook” section. I’d be concerned by the typo in the blurb as well, but I’m cheered by making the effort to get onto The Big Idea. It comes across as hard military sci-fi, which I tend to be pretty forgiving of: as long as the big dumb fun also has any moral sense, I tend to give them a fair amount of rope.
I’m sure Will’s on the phone to whomever administers his Amazon blurbs right now:
“But these saviors could never be our servants. And what is down cannot be undone.”
(Incidentally, I read the first 2-3 sample chapters, and decided to buy the book: it’s pretty decent stuff.)
Marc, don’t punish the author – read this last night, and it’s a VERY good book!
Hi everyone, thanks for the comments, and for reading my post! Sean, you’re right: as soon as I saw Marc’s post, I contacted my editor at Orbit. The typo will be corrected asap. If there are any typos in the book itself, I take full responsibility for those! I went over the galleys line by line, as did a professional proofreader.
TFSmith – Here’s how I attempted to explain the aliens’ ability to read human minds: A) The aliens communicate with each other telepathically, so this is effectively one of their basic senses. B) When sentient species evolve in similar environments, brain structure tends to be similar, including shared neurotransmitter systems. That being said, I will readily admit that I’m more a sociological/character-focused writer than a physical science guy.
I read the sample and it grabbed me. I am NOT a military sci fi fan and would not even have heard of this book, let alone made any effort to look at it, had I need seen this Big Idea post. As it was, I thought “Meh, but free sample,” so I toddled off to get one. The writing pulled me right in and made me want to know more about the situation, the people, and the story, so I might just have to make time to find out.
Finished reading the book last night. It’s like being slapped in the face with science fiction freshness. There’s enough great stuff in the book for a trilogy (he could have easily done this with the material). But it flies by…I loved this book. Loved it!!!
I picked this up shortly after it appeared in the Big Idea, and it has finally jumped to the front of my reading queue. I’ve been very impressed so far, having read up to the start of the second main section.
Will McIntosh wrote: “My hope is readers will feel that a case can be made for any of the three species being most responsible for the cataclysm that unfolds.”
From the first section, and the foreshadowing of what is yet to come, I think this story has that in spades.
I’m looking forward the rest of the book.