My deepest wish is for this discovery to redefine alterity for all of us.
The concept of “otherness”.
Sylvain Neuvel’s Sleeping Giants (2016) is a true accomplishment in terms of unique science fiction storytelling. Its nontraditional format may alienate some readers, but the story it tells is in every way an excellent balance of traditional and unique science fiction.
Byron reviewed this book in 2018 and has a very different take on it than I do. To read his review, click here.
We’ll get into that unique format in a bit, but first I want to look at the story. Sleeping Giants delivers on many of the cornerstones of science fiction, including posing questions like “what does it mean for humanity if we’re not alone in the universe” in a way that’s engaging and challenging, and without losing the sweeping pace of the narrative as it tackles those questions.
If you’re a fan of those traditional science fiction through-notes you will find them here, explored in a thoughtful and engaging way. Without giving away the farm, I think it’s safe to say that it’s clear that Neuvel has what it takes to make these oft-visited questions worth revisiting under his careful care.
It is true, though, that Neuvel is doing something unique with his story in the way he presents it. He explores the entire narrative (all 304 pages, minus the prologue) in an interview format, challenging readers to engage with a story presented in a way they may never have encountered before.
To be frank, it appears on the surface to be a weird call to make (writing this story in such a rare format) and I’m sure that some readers found it difficult to engage with – and may even have DNFed this book. I didn’t find that it was any more difficult to adapt to this format than it is to adapt to any new writer’s voice or style, but it would be ridiculous not to acknowledge that this format may not be accessible to all readers.
In an interview with Penguin Random House Neuvel speaks to his love for this format, which he likens to epistolary stories, and his motivation in writing this way himself, saying
“[As a reader] I was the one who had to piece things together based on what I learned about the characters, and I liked that the author placed that kind of confidence in me. [As the writer] I was writing something completely different, but I also wanted my readers to participate, to figure things out on their own …”
Throughout these pages, Neuvel proves that he knows exactly what he’s doing in choosing this format for Sleeping Giants.
The interview format, interrupted here and there with excerpts from character diary entries, forces a very specific lens through which the reader views the story. Neuvel does an excellent job ensuring that the interviewer (though they remain entirely unidentified throughout the story) is a realized character in the story and not simply a plot device. And the reader watches the story not through their eyes but at their side, as though we become a third person in the room with the interviewer and Kara, or Rose, or Victor. This serves to make the events of the story feel increasingly personal.
I worried at first that it would be difficult to get any sense of the characters through this format, but Neuvel does a fine job of realizing the characters and portraying not just their character (so to speak) but their complex experiences, deep emotions, and growth throughout the story. Where there are gaps he bridges them with excerpts from character diaries, which serves both to realize the individual characters and to deep dive into pivotal events throughout the story – as well as offering readers a break from the immersive interview format.
It is true that in parts the limitations of the format require a specific kind of suspension of disbelief on the part of the reader, as (particularly in the beginning) Neuvel has left himself no other way to present information than to have his characters speak it in an interview. While for the most part Neuvel manages to write convincing and realistic dialog, he’s sometimes left to shoehorn a little emotional exposition in a way that no human would speak. But there are drawbacks to all formats, and I at least didn’t mind granting him the one small concession of my willing suspension of this disbelief.
Neuvel does some truly brilliant things with the narrator, by positioning them as powerful and well-informed in terms of the events of the story but not overwhelmingly scientifically literate. This allows him to explain scientific aspects in sufficient detail when it might serve the reader, and gives him carte blanche to pose questions through the narrator which he then declines to answer, effectively leaving them for the reader to ponder.
Similarly, Neuvel has an excellent grasp of the strengths of each of his characters, and how best to employ them to expose new aspects of the narrative or to pose new ideas to the reader in ways that feel natural and real instead of contrived.
For instance, near the beginning of the book the scientist Rose muses aloud and “connects the dots” for the reader. So often, this technique is a lazy ploy an author might lean on when he has no other way to draw the reader’s attention to an unusual or unlikely interpretation of facts/events so far. However, Neuvel limits Rose (and himself) to information she has readily available and to a logical leap that truly is logical – particularly in light of what we as readers have learned about Rose so far. Even as she’s explaining it, she acknowledges that it’s only one possible interpretation of events, and that it’s not worth examining because it’s most likely but that it would be just so cool if it were true. What’s impressive isn’t that Neuvel wrote a scientifically-literate character musing on one interpretation of events but that the logical leap is brilliant (and cool) and also an entirely reasonable way to interpret what Neuvel has posed.
Sleeping Giants is full of such exercises in restraint and trust. Restraint in that he limits himself at all times to exploring fantastical elements only once they’re sufficiently forecasted in the story, and trust that he’s placing in the readers to join the characters in connecting the dots and bringing both skepticism and fantastic curiosity to their reading.