(cover image from Amazon.com)
It's the distant future, and humanity is struggling to survive against the Waisters - incomprehensible aliens with insanely powerful technology, who've traveled 1200 years out of the waist of Orion "for the privilege of squashing the human race like a nest of bugs."
There seems to be nothing we can do to stave off extinction, though our military leaders try every trick in the book, including mass human wave attacks. And in our desperation, they create Aggressor Six - five humans and a very smart dog who are assigned to act like the enemy, talk like the enemy, think like the enemy - trying to gain some slight advantage which might turn the tide.
Aggressor Six (1994) is an incredible book. It grabbed my interest right from the start, and I could hardly put it down. On the Aggressor Six team is Ken Jonson, one of the few people who's ever seen the enemy face-to-face, a marine corporal who survived a horrific attack on a Waister ship, but not undamaged.
The first part of the book alternates Aggressor Six activities with flashbacks to Jonson's combat experience. Jonson seems very fragile, mentally - reasonably so, given his experiences. But there's no time for healing.
Fearing his assignment, he throws himself into the role even more than the others on his team. He knows that the aliens are people, and that there must be some explanation for the attack. But are they just losing their minds? Or are they, indeed, becoming the enemy?
And the aliens are very alien. They do not think like human beings. That's pretty much the whole point. What they are doing seems to make no sense - and it doesn't, not for human beings. But these are aliens. They don't think like us.
Apparently, this was McCarthy's first published novel, but it just blew me away. I remain astonished that McCarthy isn't better known. As I noted in previous reviews, he combines hard science fiction with superb characters. I won't forget Ken Jonson for awhile, that's for sure.
Note that this is set far in the future. I don't know how far, but we're told that humanity had first harnessed antimatter a thousand years previously, and we have colonies around several star systems. But people don't seem to have changed much. Admittedly, we only see military installations. And no civilians at all.
But human technology doesn't seem to have advanced that much, either (nothing like the advances in McCarthy's Queendom of Sol series). Yet we can retrieve useful information - including their language - directly from alien brains. I must admit that strained my suspension of disbelief.
In a way, we don't know anything about these aliens. Yet, from their brains, we know their language, their customs, even their family units. It's an odd combination, none too plausible. But if you can just accept it as the book's premise, the rest of this is a great story.
It's a powerful story. It's draining, even. Human beings die by the millions, maybe even by the billions. And we see enough of their individual stories to imagine that duplicated almost beyond measure. This is a tragedy like human beings have never seen before. Not even close.
It's desperate times, and desperate times require desperate measures.
Note: Here's my review of the sequel, The Fall of Sirius.