In the following email interview, writer Victor Godinez discusses his new military sci-fi novel The First Protectors (paperback, Kindle), which he calls a more realistic look at what would happen if aliens invaded, and what we’d do in response.
Let’s start with an overview of the plot. What is The First Protectors about?
It’s about a retired Navy SEAL, Ben Shepherd, who has run as far away from war as he can, only to find out that the universe is bringing the war to him. He gets an early warning that a conquering alien civilization is headed towards Earth, and he gets injected with alien nanotechnology which makes him the only person who can lead the resistance. He’s pulled by his duty in one direction, and his guilt in another.
Where did you get the idea for The First Protectors and how did that idea evolve, if at all, while you were writing it?
I’m a big fan of alien invasion stories, but I’ve always been irritated at how unrealistic they tend to be, at least insofar as we can make educated guesses at what an alien invasion might look like. Mankind seems to always win because of either the bacteria in the air or the aliens are allergic to water — you’d think they’d notice our planet is 70% water and crawling with microbes — or because the plucky defenders magically discover the one, low-tech, completely-debilitating weak point in E.T.’s otherwise impregnable armor. I wanted to explore what an invasion might realistically look like, and how we might realistically fight back. And then I wanted to figure out who we might ask to lead that kind of impossible mission.
It sounds like The First Protectors is a sci-fi story. But are there any subgenres of sci-fi, or combinations of them, that you think would describe this story better?
Yeah, I definitely went deep into the military sci-fi, both of the traditional human variety, as well as alien military equipment and tactics. I tried to be fair to both the lethal weaponry we use on each other all the time here on Earth, as well as the vastly superior armaments that any species sophisticated enough to travel between stars would bring to bear. So, there are lots of guns. But I also wanted to dig a bit into the social and cultural impact of coming face-to-face with intelligent extraterrestrials, particularly hostile ones. I think there would be both people coming together and countries pulling apart, and that drives a lot of the tension in the book.
As you mentioned, the main character in The First Protectors, Ben Shepherd, is a retired Navy SEAL. Is there a reason you made him a SEAL as opposed to some other kind of special forces soldier? Or a regular soldier?
I don’t have any military background myself, but I love to swim and have always been fascinated by the idea of frogmen working and fighting underwater. It’s such an alien environment for people to operate in, and I think it stirs a kind of primordial fear to see monsters coming out of the deep. So Shepherd is a very tough guy.
That said, he’s got a complicated past. Part of his guilt isn’t just over the friends he’s lost in battle, but a long-ago trauma that took place out on the water. And now even though he’s left the black ocean behind, he has to deal with a threat coming from the blackness of space above.
And is there also a reason why you set this in New Mexico?
I’m a huge fan of Empire Of The Summer Moon by S.C. Gwynne, a historical book about the Comanche Indians and their running battles with settlers and then the U.S. Army during the nineteenth century. The Comanche roamed Texas, New Mexico, and all over the Southwest, and they were terrifying to their enemies. Totally merciless. But at the same time, they had families and social bonds, and when it comes down to it, they were defending their territory against invaders with massively superior technology. The Comanche held out a long time, but even they were defeated. And the deserts of New Mexico are, today, a great place to disappear if you want to escape from the world…unless alien spaceships happen to crash at your camp site.
Ben also gets his powers from a dying alien in a crashed space ship. How often have people pointed out that that’s also Green Lantern’s origin story?
Ha! Once or twice. I definitely wasn’t aiming for a comic book effect with The First Protectors. On the other hand, as the saying goes, any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
Was Green Lantern an influence on The First Protectors? And I mean the comics, not the movie; no one was influenced by the movie. Well, except maybe Ryan Reynolds to do a better job with Deadpool.
Actually, the Green Lantern movie is highly underra — nope, can’t do it. It’s not good. But it inspired everyone to do better.
Honestly, though, no, I wasn’t thinking of the Lantern Corps when I came up with my story. What I was trying to figure out was how humanity could possibly resist an alien invasion without getting obliterated within seconds of the first encounter. And I figured we’d have to have a little help from an equally advanced civilization. Which is why a lot of people who think seriously about first contact think we should stop broadcasting radio signals out into space. You don’t want to catch the attention of a hungry predator that would likely be much more advanced than we are.
Speaking of influences, are there any writers or specific stories that were a big influence on The First Protectors but not on your writing style as a whole?
Plenty. Two in particular that I think are worth calling out. First is The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. “Don’t Panic” is always good advice. But I think what I love most about Douglas Adams’ stories is how he showed us a universe that’s so much bigger, and weirder, and more hostile and more beautiful than the small corner we see from Earth. Arthur Dent is a bit of a Bilbo Baggins for the modern age.
Second, the highly underrated Armor by John Steakley. Armoris superficially similar to Starship Troopers — the book, not the movie, although the film is sharper than it’s generally given credit for — about super-powered soldiers fighting bugs on an alien planet. ButArmorreally digs deep into the psychological impact of facing death for years on end in a brutal environment against an enemy that is totally alien.
How about non-literary influences; are there any movies, TV shows, or video games that you think had a big impact on The First Protectors?
Plenty, but I think the movie that really got me to start writing my book was Battle: Los Angeles. It’s a fun, fast-paced, solid action movie about aliens attempting to colonize Earth, met head-on by a bunch of U.S. Marines. Now, nothing but respect for the Marine Corps, I’ll watch this movie anytime it shows up on TV, and I’ve got my money ready if they ever make a sequel, but there’s no way a civilization capable of skipping across the galaxy would be slowed down even momentarily by contemporary human weapons.
Also, I played Halo on the original Xbox for roughly a million hours, so there might be a little bit of that in my book, too.
And this is my last question about influences, I promise. You used to be a tech reporter for a newspaper, The Dallas Morning News. How, if at all, do you think writing for a newspaper may have impacted either what you wrote in The First Protectors or how you wrote it?
It did give me an eye for what technologically realistically can do and what it can’t. I think it also helped with writing dialogue, as learning to identify and weave in the best quotes from an interview is definitely a learned skill.
All that said, writing a novel is its own beast. At some point, you just have to jump in and teach yourself the things you don’t know.
Now, as you may know, some science fiction novels are stand-alone stories, while others are part of larger sagas. What is The First Protectors?
It was written to be self-contained, but also leave open the possibility for sequels. I’d love to continue exploring this world and this universe, and I’ve got outlines for at least two more book. Just depends how much readers like this one.
Earlier we talked about the movies, TV shows, and video games that may have influenced The First Protectors. But has there been any interest in making a movie, show, or game based on your novel?
Nothing yet, but I tried to paint big visuals in the story to counterpoint the intense internal struggles each character is navigating. So I think there’s certainly opportunity for the story to branch out into other mediums.
If The First Protectors was to be adapted into a movie or TV show, who would you like to see them cast in the main roles?
Wow, getting a bit outside my area of expertise. I don’t have any specific names in mind, but I do think someone who’s got some wear and tear on them, like Shepherd does at the beginning of the novel, would be right. He’s already been through hell when the story opens, and has no interest in going back.
And if it was going to be made into a video game, what kind of game should it be?
A video game adaption would have to be about more than just run-and-gun, though that’s certainly part of it. There’s a cost to war, both physical and spiritual, and the player should understand that.
Finally, if someone enjoys The First Protectors, what novel of someone else’s would you suggest they read next and why that?
The Forever War by Joe Haldeman should be high on the list of any fan of military sci-fi. A bit embarrassed I only got to it a couple years ago, but once you read it, you instantly see how it affected so much of contemporary science fiction. And if I can cheat and suggest one more: The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien, a series of semi-autobiographical and linked short stories based on his service in Vietnam as an infantryman in the U.S. Army.