A Difficult Lie
by J. H. Mortensen
Echoes of science-fiction alien invasion movies, from “War of the Worlds” in 1953 (and 2005) to “Independence Day” in 1996, repeat themselves in the opening third of J. H. Mortensen’s “A Difficult Lie”: The invaders are unstoppable, unapproachable, and the end of the human race seems inevitable.
The second part of the novel changes course drastically. The reader is transported right in the midst of the invaders, understanding abruptly becomes easy, and there are revelations of two other intelligent alien species — both subservient to the invading race, but not happy about it and willing to throw in their lot with the “earthlings” if there seems a chance of coming out on top.
In the last third of the book, the point of view shifts from the human characters to the invaders and to one of the conquered races, until Mortensen wraps it all up in a nice conclusion.
Mortensen creates a large cast of characters, both human and alien. The “lie” of the title is a golf term, referring to the position of the ball when it is going to be difficult to smack it to its goal. This is the position of the entire human race.
The reader may be tricked into picking the wrong character as the most prominent protagonist, because death claims one of the key characters early on. The death of that person continues to affect other characters throughout the book. Even though this is an alien invasion story with all that implies about the massive death and destruction that follows, even a single death in this story is given the weight it deserves. Mortensen does not set up any character simply as a victim.
Another strength of the novel is the reality of some of its settings, particularly the McDonald Observatory in Texas where some of the key human counter-attack plans and observations emerge.
Some of the dialog seems a bit formal at times, but some of the characters are formal types. All in all, Mortensen gives the reader quite a ride with no guarantee that the human race will come out on top. The human characters are not all good — we have our looters and power-hungry types in the story — and the invaders are not all bad, although most of them are. And a key female scientist in the subservient race becomes a pivotal force in the events, trying to stay alive by her wits as the overseeing race tries to find ways to assassinate her.
There are wheels within wheels at all levels of the story. But it is the characters, of whatever species, that propel it to its conclusion. And that makes for a good ride for the reader. — Paul Dellinger