Author: Sylvain Neuvel
Mankind has always looked to the stars for signs of alien life. But what if the signs we seek aren’t encoded in the sky, but buried beneath our feet? Sleeping Giants opens innocently enough – a young girl is taking a ride on her bicycle. But that picture of normalcy quickly dissolves when the earth cracks open, sending the girl tumbling into the open palm of a giant metal hand.
Fast forward, and the girl who fell into the chasm is a scientist who spent years studying the hand before hitting a dead end. But then another body part is unearthed in Turkey – a forearm – except this time, it brought down a military helicopter and almost incited an international conflict. The operation to recover the remaining pieces goes under deep cover, recruiting the best of the best in pilots, linguists and geneticists to uncover the secrets of the giant robot that begins to take shape.
Sleeping Giants does not read like a typical novel. The story is styled like a case study, with the majority of chapters taking the form of interviews between several main characters and an enigmatic interviewer. (Similar in style to World War Z, if you’re familiar with the actual book and not the heinous film adaptation.) Out of all the people we meet by name – gutsy pilots, brilliant scientists, groundbreaking linguists and defensive politicians – it’s the nameless narrator who slowly creeps out of the shadows to steal the show. He cuts straight to the heart of matters and clearly thinks ten moves in advance, but we get nothing more than veiled hints about who he really is. One thing is obvious, though – he’s not as detached from the project as he claims to be. Personal journal entries and other records occasionally supplement to advance the plot and provide insight into characters’ mindsets.
What starts as a global treasure hunt to retrieve the body parts by stealth and by force evolves into a critical look on international relations, weapons of mass destruction and humanity’s role in the universe. The characters are forced to contend with the notion that not only is the robot extraterrestrial in origin, but the possibility that its creators might still exist, and could have their eyes on Earth. And while they might have been able to profess innocence at the outset, once they begin to dig into the robot’s capabilities they have to wrestle with who should control it, when it should be used, and even if it should be used.
Despite seeing most of the action secondhand through interviews after the fact, Sleeping Giants reads very quickly and is quite thrilling. There were several twists I wasn’t expecting that contributed to this being a fully enveloping story and not just a Transformers-style slugfest. There is no grand hero – each of the people we meet, though markedly talented in their own ways, are also deeply and realistically flawed. Whether they’re arrogant, belligerent, blindly optimistic or just plain unlikeable, they have to confront their worst qualities to be able to offer their best to the project.
Sleeping Giants is a smart, sharp book that is embodied in the dry, almost-but-not-quite humorless interviewer. Below is one of my favorite exchanges between him and another character, following a…shall we say…incident.
“There was an immediate threat.”
“North Korean troops gathering…inside North Korea. That is unheard of.”
“They were massing very close to the border.”
“North Korea is the size of Ohio. It would be geographically challenging for them to gather very far from the border.”
If you like that, then you’ll be golden for the rest of the book. Sleeping Giants would be a great intro to adult sci-fi/fantasy for people who fear that the entire genre may be weighed down by extensive world building and lofty language. I assure you, it is not. If you’re an adult or mature teen who likes YA sci-fi/fantasy, give this one a try (this is basically a description of myself). It’s extremely accessible even with its scientific overtones, which will please people looking for that but not be a turn-off for a more casual reader. It has fast pacing that will be comfortable for YA readers, but none of the angst and tropes that tend to induce eye rolls in older readers of that genre.
Fair warning: it’s not a standalone. So if waiting is an issue for you, then mark your calendars for April 2017, which is when Waking Gods hits shelves. Trust me, you’ll want it.