If you are a scientist you believe that it is good to find out how the world works; that it is good to find out what the realities are; that it is good to turn over to mankind at large the greatest possible power to control the world and to deal with it according to its lights and its values.
Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel is a kinda-YA book about scientists discovering and then figuring out an ancient giant alien robot. It is the first book of a series (The Themis Files series). My reviews this year have mostly been all-out endorsement (Pachinko and Purple and Black) or a kind of resigned acceptance of well-meaning mediocrity (Beneath the Sugar Sky). My feelings for Sleeping Giants are more complex. On the one hand, I like how the book is about figuring out an ancient giant alien robot. On the other hand, that’s pretty much the only thing I liked about it.
The basic problem with Sleeping Giants is its experimental format. Most of the book is composed of a series of “interviews” between the principal characters and some unnamed CIA (ish?) agent that I’m going to call Mr. Bubbles because (1) it’s easier than typing unnamed CIA agent over and over (2) I don’t really like acronyms, (3) Lilo and Stitch is my jam. The interview format could be an interesting way to structure a story – if it played with unreliable information, inconsistent stories, some weird rumors, or misunderstandings that pop up here and there. But in the hands of this author, it’s just a lazy way of avoiding real characterization. It gives the author an excuse to (over)use direct, broad characterization and try to claim that it’s appropriate for that format. But it isn’t. For example, one character will say “X is mean.” X will then say in the next interview “I am mean.” Then another character will say “X is mean,” verifying the truth of those previous statements. Meanwhile, not one example of “X being mean” is given, it’s just treated as fact. Then a few chapters later, X is providing deep psychological reasons to Mr. Bubbles for her need to push people that like her away, with no explanation provided for why the “mean” character would open up to Mr. Bubbles like he was her therapist.
Another problem with this interview format is that it strips the emotion out of the narrative. By having no point-of-view characters or narrator, nobody’s thoughts, feelings, or perspective really stands out. It’s basically an entire book of dialogue. Therefore, the reader never really develops much of an emotional attachment to anyone. If the reader were privy to Mr. Bubbles’ insights, a character’s journal entries, project reports, SOMETHING to spice it up or add a different dimension, the book would have been far stronger. That was the approach taken by The Rise and Fall of DODO, a vastly superior experimental novel that sort of uses this format.
The plot itself is…fine…I guess. I mean, there’s an ancient alien robot, so that’s cool. The geopolitical ramifications of that thing are portrayed kind of realistically, if a bit basically. The story is well-paced. It’s not a TERRIBLE reading experience; it’s just…ok.
My rating: 3 stars
I think I’m somewhere between a third and halfway through. I just wandered off, and haven’t felt an urge to go back. Your review helped me pin down why. I’m not attached to anyone. At all.