Sleeping Giants

Cover image for Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel by Sylvain Neuvel

ISBN 978-1-101-886694

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this title at ECCC 2016. All quotes are based on an uncorrected text.

“As a scientist, all I can say is that humans of today do not have the resources, the knowledge, or the technology to build something like this. It’s entirely possible that some ancient civilization’s understanding of metallurgy was better than ours, but there wouldn’t have been any more iridium around, whether it was five thousand, ten thousand, or twenty thousand years ago. So to answer your question, no, I don’t believe humans built these things. You can draw whatever conclusion you want from that.”

As a child in Deadwood, South Dakota, eleven year old Rose Franklin made an amazing discovery when she fell into a hole. Rescuers found her lying in the palm of a giant metal hand, surrounded by glowing blue light. Seventeen years later, the NSA recruits Rose, now an accomplished physicist, to head up a new project to investigate the origin and purpose of the artifact. In the time since her discovery, almost no progress has been made. The carbon dating of the artifact seems unbelievable, and the hand somehow seems to weigh less than it should given its size and composition. But Rose is willing to risk her career to say what no one else will; the craftsmanship and material in the hand are very likely not of this earth. And where there is a hand, should there not also be an arm, a body, a head?

The events of Sleeping Giants are presented in an interview format, without any other narration or contextual information other than occasional journal entries and conversation transcripts from some less formal settings. This is a particularly tricky choice because all character development and any necessary information about the science must be integrated into these interviews without making them seem too stilted. For the most part, Sylvain Neuvel carries this off very well. The interviewer is not a scientist, so he can reasonably ask for explanations of Rose’s discoveries. And since he likes to keep as much information as possible to himself, he often asks questions to which he presumably already knows the answers, in order to find out what his subject knows. One drawback is that some emotional situations, such as a disagreement that becomes a crucial turning point in the story, seem a little distant for the reader when encountered in retrospect. But overall, this style worked very well.

The interviews are conducted by a powerful and mysterious figure. Though he is ostensibly interviewing his subjects voluntarily, I found myself thinking of him as the Interrogator. He seems to be human, but he is not part of either the military or the government, though he has connections in both places. The source of his authority is unknown, but the very structure of the text rests heavily on that authority. He must be able to request interviews and compel answers with impunity in order for the interview format to work effectively. He obviously knows a great deal, and yet chooses to reveal it selectively, and only when it suits his purposes. He is as much a mystery as the artifact itself, his motivation and sources of information unknown. And he may be keeping as much from the reader as from his interview subjects; the files that comprise that novel are presented in order, but there are large gaps in the record. Crucially, however, the interviewer is not all seeing or all powerful, though he likes to seem that way to the research team. But through repeated encounters with a seemingly friendly but also manipulative old man, we see that he does not know everything, and that his actions can be influenced by those with enough power and perspective to see what he is up to. This compelling figure is central to the success of Sleeping Giants.

Throughout all of this runs a definite parallel to the Manhattan Project. Rose in particular thinks a lot about the consequences of the work they are doing, and its potential for misuse. Participants in the project are asked to keep journals as a way to both document events and cope with stressors, so in addition to the interviews, we have these more personal glimpses into their thoughts mixed into the text. Yet even as it becomes apparent that their discovery is potentially very dangerous, Rose and her team are so drawn in by the mystery of the artifact that it is questionable if they could stop searching for answers even if they wanted to. And she must also consider that the knowledge of life beyond this earth may bring humanity together in a way that was never possible before, by changing our perspective on the universe.

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