I picked it up on Sunday morning and was done by Monday noon.
With my hectic life, that just never happens. But every once in a while, a book turns up that’s an effortless read and so much fun that I find myself sneaking it with me everywhere with the thought that maybe, just maybe I can get a few more pages read along the way.
This time, it’s Sleeping Giants, by Sylvain Neuvel, and it’s much more likely to keep you up all night reading than to make you snooze like the behemoths of the title.
I owe my discovery to Ian McGillis’ review of the novel in the Gazette.
Neuvel is a Montrealer who lives in Pointe Saint-Charles (though he grew up near Quebec City). In the paragraph about him found at the back of the novel, he is described as a high school dropout (at 15), a former journalist and ice cream peddler who also worked in soil decontamination and eventually received a Ph.D. in linguistics (!) from the University of Chicago, taught linguistics in India and worked as a software engineer in Montreal.
I think this is all relevant because it’s undoubtedly some of this same spirited intelligence and restless energy that moved him to send a galley of Sleeping Giants to Kirkus Reviews before going ahead with self-publication. And we know how that turned out.
It all begins when a young girl, Rose Franklin, accidentally falls into a huge hole in the forest floor where she has been trying out her new bicycle on her 11th birthday.
She has fallen into a paneled box which contains a giant metallic hand (about twenty-three feet across). Carbon dating done at the time of the discovery indicates that the hand and the sixteen panels surrounding and protecting it are roughly three thousand years old. Furthermore, the panels are covered in symbols that glow a bright turquoise, with no visible power source.
The story then jumps a few decades. Rose Franklin, Ph.D., is now a top notch physicist and Senior Scientist with the Enrico Fermi Institute at the University of Chicago, leading a team working on the mysterious hand, which mass spectrometry has shown to be an alloy of several heavy metals—principally iridium—that behave in ways that make no sense to Franklin and her team.
What matters here, of course, is that science and technology have caught up just enough to establish with certainty that the hand cannot have originated on Earth.
Franklin’s team soon discovers other body parts buried deep all over the planet. Their working theory is that once connected, the parts will form a giant robotic creature with capabilities they can only imagine.
Sylvain Neuvel establishes all of this very early on. What follows is an exhilarating quest to locate and extract the huge, buried robot pieces, assemble them and…deal with the global scientific, philosophical and political fallout of these actions. The robot can only be operated from within by two people. Is it intended to protect, to destroy, or both?
Much like the novel World War Z by Max Brooks, the narrative of Sleeping Giants is unconventional, unfolding as a series of numbered classified files that are either the personal journal entries of the main characters, or news articles, or the transcripts of the frequent interviews these same characters give to the novel’s most omnipresent and intriguing character, an unnamed man and éminence grise I simply thought of as Mr. X.
Neuvel’s decision to tell his story this way does present some problems. Without natural dialogue between characters and the possibility of seeing them interact in varied situations, a storyteller has to do an awful lot of exposition, and there are parts of the book, especially early on, where this is so.
At the same time, this structure heightens the sense of a clandestine operation and of the existence of a covert politico-scientific subculture. And thanks to some really clever writing, the narrative picks up both in terms of pace and verisimilitude.
That’s because of the characters. Just a handful, really (no pun intended). Alongside Mr. X and Rose Franklin, there’s also Kara Resnik, a former Chief Warrant Officer and helicopter pilot in the US Army; CW2 Ryan Mitchell, also with the US Army; Vincent Couture, genius linguist and Montrealer (the author’s alter ego?), who becomes the Senior Intelligence Advisor, and Alyssa Papantoniou, a geneticist with darker motivations.
As you can see, there’s gender equality in Neuvel’s novel, and it’s much appreciated. Even the robots come in both male and female forms—and the first one found is a she.
In Sleeping Giants, ideologues are few and far between. The characters are brilliant, insecure, damaged, emotional and complex; driven as much by impulse as by any master plan. This makes them unpredictable and also engaging.
I loved how Sleeping Giants sent me wandering through my memories of other films featuring Mechas (robots or machines controlled by people), like Guillermo Del Toro’s Pacific Rim, which is a no-holds-barred sci-fi romp, but also darker, dread-filled experiences like Steven Spielberg’s remake of War of the Worlds.
In the first, it’s humans operating the controls to save themselves, and in the second, it’s alien invaders on a mission of annihilation. It’s interesting that in Sleeping Giants, nothing is as clear cut, and the reader is left wondering who may ultimately need saving from whom.
For those reasons, the beautiful, glowing giant robot of Neuvel’s novel reminded me mostly of GORT, the alien robot from The Day the Earth Stood Still. Especially his second incarnation, in the 2008 version of the movie, which is an esthetically stunning and equally intimidating humanoid machine that I felt an unexpected sympathy for.
Maybe this is the best reaction of all. To the questions asked in this fantastic debut novel, there are no clear answers, but there are always intimations of the cost, no matter the choices made.
Where does one draw the line? How many deaths are acceptable in the search for answers?
Dr. Rose Flanklin offers her perspective:
“Am I ready to accept all that may come out of this if it works? It might give us a cure for everything. It might also have the power to kill millions. Do I want that on my conscience? I wish I knew where this journey will take us, but I don’t. All I know is that this is bigger than me, my self-doubt, or any crisis of conscience. I now truly realize how profoundly insignificant I am compared to all this. Why does that make me feel so much better?”
But I think it’s Mr. X’s perspective that surprised me the most:
[…] My deepest wish is for this discovery to redefine alterity for all of us. […] The concept of “otherness”. What I am is very much a function of what I am not. If the “other” is the Muslim world, then I am the Judeo-Christian world. If the other is from thousands of light-years away, I am simply human. Redefine alterity and you can erase boundaries.”
The novel’s subtitle is “Book One of the Themis Files”, which is a promise that there are perhaps many more books to come. If so, then Sleeping Giants is one heck of an auspicious beginning.