Independent Book Review
When an alien insurrection is launched at the metaphorical intersection between science and religion, one man’s troubled mind might just hold the key to humanity’s survival.
Content Warnings: child abuse; sexual abuse; suicide
Featuring high-concept technologies, strange alien lifeforms, and more than a few metaphysical conundrums, Ron Jensen’s Death of the Antagonist is part action-packed thriller and part thought-provoking science fiction epic.
Weaving together themes drawn from the fields of science and religion, and pulling no punches when it comes to exposing human frailty at the intersection of the two, Jensen crafts a complex and sometimes perplexing tale about a novel means of extraterrestrial invasion and the hugely painful steps that a down-on-his-luck everyman must take to thwart it.
The fantastical nature of the science fiction story is clear from the outset, as it begins with an alien scout arriving in downtown Seattle by means of a portal that appears to the human eye to be no more than a train tunnel. The winged creature uses its sensors first to determine that it has arrived in the target time period and then to search for the target location. After seemingly identifying its destination within the old Union
Station building, the scout attempts to gain entry via transmutation. However, despite its advanced technological capabilities, this proves easier said than done, causing the scout to leave itself a wry digital note: “Transmutation ineffective – and painful.”
Fortunately, after resorting to squeezing through the gap between the main door and its frame, the scout makes its way inside and continues the search for its exact target location. The data trail the scout is following experiences a sudden and potentially dangerous spike as it moves through the building, and it only narrowly avoids overload.
When it spots an old man sitting in front of the doors to the concourse, the scout flies forward cautiously. Not cautiously enough though, as while the man cannot actually see the scout, when he turns his head in its direction, he sends a massive wave of data toward the alien:
“It’s just data, information, but it’s white hot, like steaming, volcanic projectiles. The scout is seared, one of its sensor arrays charred, the other completely vaporized, but the creature itself manages to remain airborne.”
Meanwhile, Pastor Ian Preston is waking up to the start of another bad day. Having woken every half hour or so throughout the night, Ian is greatly displeased to be dragged from sleep once again, this time by a small burst of green light intruding through the window from the old Union Station. This latest disruption coincides with his alarm clock notifying him that it is now 05:28 and so time to get up and ready for
his final performance review at work. “Ian backhands the clock off the nightstand, watching as pieces break off and slide across the floor. But it keeps working, reminding him that nothing he does can stop time and the downward spiral of his life.”
Things don’t improve much from this point onwards, as when Ian leaves home he almost immediately becomes embroiled in an altercation with a woman named Aurora, who ultimately just needs directions to the station. After taking pains to cool his anger, Ian points her in the right direction, little realizing that he will soon be called upon to save her life.
Philosophical discussions about the nature and consequences of doing the right thing set the tone for the contemporary, real-world element of the story, which sees Ian embroiled in an ongoing spiritual crisis that is costing him his job with the church, his purpose in life, and very possibly, even his sanity.
As one church elder puts it, Ian has “some kind of storm brewing deep inside [him], and it breaks out in hurtful displays toward people.” Yet, these darker passages within his brain, which he has spent years attempting to reprogram, might just hold the key to humanity’s survival when it turns out that the target location that alien scout is seeking is actually a human host.
As the alien invasion of his mind gets underway, Ian starts to experience deeply troubling nightmares that seem more prophetic than dream-like, but he also finally starts to make a few real human connections. He meets up again with Aurora and, in between several misunderstandings and plenty of turbulence, engages in deep discussions about the nature of God and the role of the human psyche in spirituality. He also strikes up a friendship with an elderly homeless man named Cletus, who is able to offer some remarkable insights into Ian’s past life and current situation. Together, the three of them will have to unpack the messages hidden in Ian’s dreams if they are to halt the alien invasion.
The mode by which the aliens intend to invade—that is, by infiltrating Ian’s brain, reprogramming his neural pathways, and then using him as a portal—in Death of the Antagonist is ingenious.
Jensen’s worldbuilding in this regard is excellent, as the situation clearly falls within the realm of science fiction but also remains scarily plausible. It also allows Jensen to offer some thought-provoking social commentary on the nature of mental illness and how people with such illness are treated and viewed in contemporary society. He clearly highlights the need for greater understanding and compassion. The blurred boundary between what is real and what is metaphorical from Ian’s perspective provides a sense of disorientation and menace that underlies the rest of the story.
The aliens themselves form another solid aspect of the story. Jensen has conceived them as technologically advanced, mosquito-like insectoids that live in the Mount of Caves. A great deal of thought and development has gone into their habitats and practices, and Jensen has provided them with a full-fledged civilization. Their motivation for invading the Earth is made clear, as is the very real threat that they pose to humanity. The process by which they invade people’s minds is graphically described in a nicely stomach-churning way, which further emphasizes their danger.
Still, it’s really the humans who are the most disturbing element of the story. Not so much Ian, Aurora, and Cletus, although the former two certainly have their moments, but rather the people from their respective pasts who have influenced the courses of their lives in such negative ways. Both Ian’s and Aurora’s backstories involve child abuse, physical and sexual, and there are also plot points related to suicide. These impact Ian’s potential to defeat the aliens. However, these aspects of the story are particularly upsetting and differ in tone from those concerning the invasion.
The three main human characters are well developed and plausible, if not exactly always likable. In fact, it’s important to the plot that Ian isn’t often that pleasant. The way they all meet and become so rapidly intertwined in each other’s lives is handled a bit hastily, although much of the reasoning for this later becomes clear. Most importantly, they make a cracking team when it comes to taking out alien invaders, despite their many problems dealing with their fellow humans. In addition to combining science fiction and science fact, Jensen also has them deal with some weighty religious topics. While the related discussions serve a purpose plot-wise, there are perhaps a few too many diversions into theology, particularly on the part of Aurora.
Ultimately, Death of the Antagonist is a tense and exciting science fiction story set in a world that is all too believable, both in terms of the good that people do and with regard to the bad things that occur. The aliens are menacing and their plan to invade human minds as a sort of backdoor through which to invade the Earth has a real chance of success. Fortunately, the unlikely human heroes have more power and resolve than they would ever have believed, and they’re willing to do whatever it takes to save their planet.
- Independent Book Reviews
Midwest Book Review
Imagine being attacked not by outside forces, but via the neural networks of one's own brain. Many would call this "mental illness," but in Death of the Antagonist, the breached inner sanctum of the mind comes from aliens who intend to use one Ian Preston as a portal for invasion.
The story opens from the invader's perspective as they arrive on Earth and encounter a busy Seattle street scene. The "target time period" is correct. All the scout needs is the appropriate host. But, his senses overloaded by data, he winds up fleeing.
Ian Preston knows that "nothing he does can stop time and the downward spiral of his life." He's in the perfect position to become the focal point in a struggle against this invader, which draws to him two disparate individuals whose lives are also in flux and on the edge of society—a homeless man and a sex worker.
You could not find more unlikely heroes for an epic battle. Usually the warrior figure is somewhat flawed, but intrinsically admirable. This ragtag band of disparate individuals existing on the fringes of society at first seems the least likely to save the world. In reality, they are not just its best option; but its only option.
Ron Jensen crafts a story that layers its drama slowly, beginning with the perspective of the elusive invader and then moving deftly into Ian's life.
From his evolving relationship with Aurora and the spiritual discussions they have about God and psyche (“I didn’t say God has some checklist. All I’m saying is there are rewards for trying to do the right thing. But it takes some focus, some effort. The closer you get to God, the more obedient you have to be.”) to wisdom imparted by a homeless man who offers unexpected connection and salvation (“Life is conflict,” his voice is almost a whisper, “but it has a purpose.”), Ian is drawn into a crazy situation. This forces him to reexamine the bizarre path his life has taken and its ultimate meaning and impact in the greater world.
Jensen's ability to juxtapose these spiritual, psychological, and social insights within the context of an invasion that occurs on different levels will especially intrigue readers seeking more than a light entertainment piece with the classic good-versus-evil confrontation.
It draws readers into a magically transformed world and introduces uncommon sides to its characters, forcing them to adapt new survival tactics and bigger-picture thinking in order to change themselves and the human race as a whole.
“Life is conflict. Get used to it.”
The mandate for transformation and survival permeates a rich story that embraces science fiction themes, but places them in an environment where each of the characters is forced to adapt to something far outside their experience or logic.
In this new milieu, love seems to be a detriment: “Did you really think you could win them with friendship? With some warm, fuzzy reunion?” The beast leans forward, his lip curling slightly. “… with love?” Or, is it?
Readers introduced to the bigger-picture questions of life, survival, decision-making processes, and encountering something far beyond the usual ken of mankind will find Death of the Antagonist both steeped in drama and conflict and thought-provokingly rich in its approach to life-and-death options.
Libraries and readers seeking a sci-fi story that incorporates the vivid nonstop action of a thriller, the depth of a psychological probe, and the otherworldly encounters of a host of creatures who change individual perceptions of life purpose will find Death of the Antagonist outstanding in its special blend of fast-paced confrontation and character development. These profile a brand of insights and revelations that are powerfully positive against all odds:
"Life is just getting started. Your purpose is about to blow your mind.”
- D. Donovan, Midwest Book Reviews