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Cover of Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel

A page-turning debut in the tradition of Michael Crichton, World War Z, and The Martian, Sleeping Giants is a thriller fueled by an earthshaking mystery—and a fight to control a gargantuan power.

A girl named Rose is riding her new bike near her home in Deadwood, South Dakota, when she falls through the earth. She wakes up at the bottom of a square hole, its walls glowing with intricate carvings. But the firemen who come to save her peer down upon something even stranger: a little girl in the palm of a giant metal hand.

Seventeen years later, the mystery of the bizarre artifact remains unsolved—its origins, architects, and purpose unknown. Its carbon dating defies belief; military reports are redacted; theories are floated, then rejected.

But some can never stop searching for answers.

Rose Franklin is now a highly trained physicist leading a top secret team to crack the hand’s code. And along with her colleagues, she is being interviewed by a nameless interrogator whose power and purview are as enigmatic as the provenance of the relic. What’s clear is that Rose and her compatriots are on the edge of unraveling history’s most perplexing discovery—and figuring out what it portends for humanity. But once the pieces of the puzzle are in place, will the result prove to be an instrument of lasting peace or a weapon of mass destruction?


So a lot of people compare Sleeping Giants to The Martian for reasons I can't really identify besides that they both have science infodumps, but I'm more interested in comparing it to The Iron Giant. In both stories, a child discovers (parts of) a giant robot in the forest behind their house, and both involve politics with Cold War-era sensibilities. But while The Iron Giant is an exercise in caring, Sleeping Giants is an exercise in failing to thrill.

Because let's be clear, Sleeping Giants is more of a political thriller than it is a giant robot story. If you're expecting giant robot action — and I was — you will most likely be disappointed.

Sleeping Giants is told through an epistolary format, composed of interview transcripts, journal entries, media reports, and other documents. I love epistolary books, so I got a kick out of that. However, all of the interviews are between the book's characters and a single unnamed interviewer(1), so we can more or less count him as one of the novel's main characters. Joining him in these interviews are Rose Franklin, Kara Resnik, Ryan Mitchell, Vincent Couture, and Alyssa Papantoniou. I'll come back to them later.

I've read a lot of reviews of this book, trying to pin down why it didn't work for me. Many of the negative reviews mention the book's format and how it made it hard for them to get into the story. They say that the epistolary format put distance between them and the characters: we're always hearing characters describe ("telling") their actions and feelings rather than experiencing those firsthand through narrative ("showing"). I think there's something to this criticism, but I don't think it's the whole story at all. For one, epistolary books can be extraordinarily successful at building emotional resonance. It all depends on the writing. That this epistolary book failed to connect with so many readers says more about Neuvel than about the format. His writing is fast, economical, and easy to sink into, but it doesn't realistically depict dialogue, which is a major flaw when 90% of your book is interview transcripts. It does a good job of conveying the science, which is I think why so many people compare it to The Martian, but in doing so it sacrifices the human touch that makes the science matter.

But this is not what made the novel unsuccessful for me. It is the unnamed interviewer.

This unnamed interviewer is one of the story's greatest strengths and also biggest failings. He's mysterious, cruel, and manipulative, but always seems to be working for the greater good. He doesn't seem to be affiliated with any known world government or private agencies, and yet wields enormous power. And with that power, he solves every problem the plot throws at us. For some people, the epistolary format really is a barrier for getting into the story. But I think for people like Ana, the main problem of this book is what Plinkett in his Star Wars reviews for Red Letter Media(2) called "the dissolution of tension" (transcript of relevant part here, scroll down to item #10). Plinkett analyzed the reason a lot of people couldn't get into the Star Wars prequels as being George Lucas taking all the tension out of the scenes. If there's a problem, the tension is immediately dissolved by either making the problem unbelievable, or presenting a solution right away. Sleeping Giants works much the same way, and let me give you a hint: when you're writing a thriller, you don't want the problems to go away easily. In a good thriller, problems pile on each other and build until the plot crescendoes. In Sleeping Giants, most problems are presented, and then the interviewer solves them right away. The problems are sequential, not additive. The first time or two that the interviewer does this, it works to build his character and speak to the degree of power and control that he has. But when it happens again and again, it weakens the characterization rather than strengthening it, and undermines the tension of the plot. Characters grow through adversity and change. Static characters have their place, but it's usually not forming the backbone of your story.

Put more succinctly, the interviewer, despite his mystery, is more of a statement than a question. Thrillers and mysteries thrive on questions. This book did not thrive.

But what about the other characters? Well, three of them are women, which I would normally count as a good thing. But Sylvain Neuvel has given me reason to distrust his handling of women. He did a list of SFF books with serious science, which I helped grade for Your Book List Will Be Graded. There was one woman on the list, and he said her book had "no real science to speak of". Could he really not think of one sciency book by a woman? Or at least not insult the one he did use? Meanwhile, Sleeping Giants wastes its women on cliches and lack of interaction. Possibly the most offensive in this sense is Kara. Kara Resnik is an Air Force pilot who, together with her co-pilot Ryan, discovers the second piece of the robot when it disables their helicopter on a mission in Syria. Rose Franklin's involvement in the plot is obvious from the jacket copy, but her POV takes a backseat halfway through the book for plot reasons. Vincent is a linguist brought in from Quebec to study the alien symbols discovered with the hand. Finally there is Alyssa, who is given very little screentime and is poorly developed as a mad scientist stereotype. But let's come back to Kara.

Kara is a mouthy lady, not a team player at all, and not interested in the interviewer's bullshit. All this, I like. But she quickly becomes a stereotype as she becomes embroiled in a love triangle with Ryan and Vincent. As a queer poly person in an open relationship, I find love triangle narratives tiresome in general for always being het and for their lack of plurality and symmetry, but I found this one particularly hard to sympathize with. Ryan is an underdeveloped puppy dog, Vincent is not particularly likable, and Kara isn't really given any reason for caring about either of them. In fact, she doesn't seem to particularly like either of them, but it's as if Neuvel couldn't think of another plot for a woman or had no other ideas for establishing the necessary conflict about who pilots the giant robot. This is one case where Neuvel's handling of the epistolary format really fell down for me: that the characters only ever talk to the interviewer about their relationships rather than us seeing them interact with each other. A simple fix for this would have been, for example, transcripts of some of the sessions inside the robot, between Kara and Ryan and/or Vincent, to show how they get along. It can still follow the epistolary format, but lets us actually observe the characters interacting.

This weakness in Neuvel's use of the format also plagued another relationship: that between Rose and Kara. We're supposed to buy that they get very close, and when Rose is removed from the narrative it's supposed to affect Kara deeply. But we never see any of the three women interact, because of Neuvel's choices. Essentially, this book fails the Bechdel test even though it has three female POVs in it.

I haven't talked about Alyssa much. It's hard to without spoilers. On the surface, she's a geneticist from the Balkans brought on as another scientist on the robot team. And she has a stutter. Which is the only speech anomaly depicted on the page and I kind of... side-eye that. Now, my degree is in linguistics, and in my program we studied a lot about transcription and how political it is. No one talks like they write, or like Proper Prescriptivist English says they should. Everyone has a lot of "er"s, "um"s, filler words, and other errata in their speech. Choosing how you transcribe someone can say a lot about both you and them. You can portray someone as uneducated or lower-class simply by including all the filler words and false starts in their speech. You can present someone as very polished and intelligent by choosing to edit that out. Neuvel's transcripts have all obviously been edited for clarity — except for Alyssa's. Her stutter is clearly and explicitly depicted and considering the ultimate trajectory of her character I find this choice... questionable. It's othering in a way that doesn't play nice with her ultimate fate.

I do like one aspect of the epistolary format a lot: the documents we get to see are only pieces — the dossier file numbers of the documents jump ahead at uneven intervals, and I don't think any two files were ever sequential — and we have to assemble them ourselves to see the greater whole, just as the characters in the novel are struggling to assemble the giant robot. It has a nice symmetry to it.

But all of this is about how I couldn't care about the characters and their relationships very much, and that brings me back around to The Iron Giant. The giant robot in that story is sentient, so the characters actually form emotional relationships with it, but that's kind of my point: in that story, you come to care about a machine. In Sleeping Giants, many readers had trouble connecting with the human characters. Of course, The Iron Giant had a few tools at its disposal that Sleeping Giants did not: animation, music, voice acting, colour. But that's my point — The Iron Giant uses its chosen format and medium effectively. I rewatched the movie for this review, and I gotta say y'all: I teared up. I hadn't seen it in a long time, and it was like experiencing it for the first time all over again. The movie takes us firsthand through the discovery of the robot and Hogarth Hughes developing an emotional attachment to it: we see this happen in the masterful animation as they interact onscreen, we're guided to this by the gentle score and carefully chosen colour palettes, we hear this in the characters' voices. The movie uses every tool at its disposal to make us really feel the relationships between the characters and buy the simple message: "You are who you choose to be." Which brings me back to the writing. The writing in The Iron Giant is simple, but effective. Sleeping Giants, on the other hand, doesn't make good use of its medium(3). While the epistolary format works on a couple of levels — in the sense I mentioned above of assembling a puzzle, or to portray the interviewer — it's not very good at letting us experience the story. The most affecting part of the novel for me was the brief bit at the start from Rose's POV that appears to be straight narrative. It also has the best visual, of Rose at the bottom of the pit in the palm of the giant metal hand. That's good writing. But on a simple level of writing, The Iron Giant is superior.

The movie and the book also share some common themes. In an interview about his screenwriting work, Tim McCanlies says of The Iron Giant (bolding mine):
At a certain point, there are deciding moments when we pick who we want to be. And that plays out for the rest of your life. I feel like I got my sense of right and wrong from books and movies. Maybe a movie can be a life preserver for some kid. Any movie that can make us feel like we're all part of humanity is something we need to feel and more and more people don't feel that. Movies and literature provide us with that. That's what great art can do.

Similarly, in Sleeping Giants, the interviewer talks about what finding the alien-made giant robot means for humanity:
—My deepest wish is for this discovery to redefine alterity for all of us.

—Alterity?

—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.

However, the two works take very different approaches to this, with Sleeping Giants being much more cynical. The Iron Giant is all about the joy of companionship and individuality. The implications for extraterrestrial life are not really explored outside the giant itself, but the movie definitely has things to say about souls, humanity, and belonging. In Sleeping Giants, the discovery of the giant robot is shown to largely increase tensions between countries rather than bring people together. One way this could have been addressed, keeping to the epistolary format, is by providing some excerpts of news reports or other stories about people's reaction to the robot becoming public knowledge. This would have really added depth to the storytelling and given a wider view of how the discovery of an alien construct affects humanity. Instead, we get a very narrow view of the situation, and for the most part all the characters except for Rose are pretty blasé about the discovery that we are not alone in the universe.

The political sensibilities of the book form another similarity with The Iron Giant. The climax of the film involves the titular Iron Giant being caught up in a conflict with the US military, who think it is a Soviet device. In Sleeping Giants, political considerations form much of the conflict and tension throughout the book. To retrieve the robot parts from around the world, the US must illegally enter hostile nations' territories. Once the other countries catch on to what the US is doing, there is some conflict about ownership of the robot parts. Once the robot becomes public knowledge, politics dictate everything about how the robot will be handled. All this political maneuvering is sadly executed by caricatures of countries like Russia and North Korea that would feel right at home in The Iron Giant's Cold War era setting. The book ends up largely being a political thriller, written by someone who doesn't understand modern politics.

To add final insult to injury, Sleeping Giants is unlike The Iron Giant in one important way: there's no climactic scene that shows off the robot's capabilities. It's kind of expected in a giant robot story that the giant robot does something, you know? But the climax of this novel is an escape sequence clumsily conveyed in the epistolary format over a phone conversation transcript.

At this point I'd like to discuss a couple of spoilers; mostly things I found inconsistent about the plot. If you haven't read the book, skip the next paragraph.

[SPOILERS] So first of all Ryan hitting Vincent with the truck was never adequately explained. For one, when Kara describes it, she makes it sound as if Ryan was going to hit either her specifically or both her and Vincent, and Vincent pushed her out of the way and got hit. Why would Ryan want to hit her? Or Vincent, for that matter? He's never portrayed as a particularly angry man, and the entire truck-hitting thing seems to have been OOC drama for drama's sake. Second, Vincent's legs stay broken and in their new anatomical configuration despite him putting on the helmet again. Earlier, the helmets are shown to be able to heal people. Why didn't they heal Vincent? This seems to be a major inconsistency. Third, I had trouble buying the interviewer's helplessness late in the book, especially relative to Alyssa's power. He was built up a certain way — some of which was very effective, like his ability to disappear Alyssa earlier in the book and, even, the retribution he promises upon her in the end — and it was hard to buy that he couldn't do something with some speed. Especially when it comes to opposing Alyssa. She was not built up as his equal at all earlier in the book. True, this partially addresses the complaint I had earlier about the interviewer being able to solve every problem, but only partially. The core of it was that I couldn't believe that the interviewer couldn't solve the problem — not after all that buildup — it's that he could solve the problem too slowly to be exciting. Instead we get that awkward phone conversation where Ryan narrates his action as he and Vincent bust Kara out of the compound and by the way why is the status of the women at this point in the novel "presumed dead" (Rose), "evil" (Alyssa), and "needs rescue" (Kara)? I know it turns out Rose is alive in the end, but the book really hit a low point for me with Kara's rescue. Finally, the revelations about the alien empire and the robot's history felt... off to me. They provided an interesting counterpoint to the interviewer's characterization, but by the same token — and their fantastical content — they stood out like sore thumbs in the book. And as for the content of the history itself, I didn't find it very inventive or original? I would have preferred more exploration of the cultural meaning of the alien robot (in the manner I mentioned earlier, as articles or interviews or academic papers or something showing people's reactions) and leaving the actual origins of the robot mysterious. Or at least leaving that mystery for a later book in the series. [/SPOILERS]

All in all, Sleeping Giants is not a good example of the giant robot genre. It has an interesting format, some good characterization at the start, and cool scientific explanations for most things. But it fails to have an emotional core, it plays with politics in an amateurish manner while depending on that same interplay for much of its narrative thrust, and it fumbles the epistolary format, especially for the climax. Give it a pass and watch The Iron Giant instead.


Other Reviews


The Book Smugglers
Tor.com, for a positive, thorough but spoiler-free introduction to the novel
The Bibliosanctum
A Universe in Words
Civilian Reader
SF Reviews
Bibliotropic, especially on the topic of Alyssa's stutter
Weighing a pig doesn't fatten it, especially on the novel's plot weaknesses
Karissa on Goodreads, especially when it comes to the pessimism and inconsistencies of the book
NPR, for another positive take


Notes


  1. The interviewer is never explicitly assigned a gender but I think I remember some characters calling the interviewer "sir", and the author refers to him as male in an interview, so I'll stick with that. (back to text)

  2. The Plinkett character in the Star Wars reviews is an ableist caricature and a violent misogynist. The points he makes about the Star Wars films are good, but I can't really recommend watching the whole thing, or at least not without a HUGE trigger warning. (back to text)

  3. In fact, I hear the Sleeping Giants audiobook is quite good, and in the hands of skilled voice actors I can imagine connecting with the characters much better. (back to text)

Date: 2016-09-18 10:34 pm (UTC)
myfriendamy: (Default)
From: [personal profile] myfriendamy
Yeah I have no idea how this would have read on paper for me, but the audiobook was a very good production. I enjoyed it a lot and have recommended it a lot and now I feel a little worried about that ha. (the interviewer was male and a real highlight of the book for me, he was just so funny.) I listened to it quite awhile ago now (or so it feels with how many books I listen to) so I can't remember all the details but the healing thing I felt like I wondered about too...it wasn't explained?

Date: 2016-09-18 11:54 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] readingtheend.com
I know we've talked about this, but I'm just so disappointed that this book was epistolary AND it was robots, and it still wasn't a winner. I like robots and epistolary fiction and I am sad.

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