Sylvain Neuvel’s Sleeping Giants (2016) touches on many of the thematic cornerstones of science fiction, including posing questions like “what does it mean for humanity if we’re not alone in the universe”, and “what price are we willing to pay for answers, or for safety” in a way that’s engaging and challenging, all without losing the sweeping pace of the narrative. However, its nontraditional format may alienate (so to speak) some readers.
If you’re a fan of those traditional science fiction through-notes you will find them here, explored in a thoughtful and engaging way that is worthy of consideration and sure to spark conversation.
Whether your book club is preparing to discuss it, or you’ve read it on your own and are looking for more, I hope the questions below will help guide you.
Please let me know if you use these questions, find them helpful, or think I missed something. And of course I would love to see your answers to any (or all) of these questions in the comments. Happy discussing!
Of course, MAJOR SPOILER WARNINGS below:
The format of this book is unique, and some readers find it challenging. How did you respond to it?
Why do you think Neuvel chose to write his book this way? What advantages does it provide over more traditional storytelling formats?
How did you feel about the imagery in this book? Did you have a good sense of what the artifact looked like? Did you like or dislike the aesthetic Neuvel chose for it?
What did you think of the characters? Did you feel that you were able to understand them and their emotional journeys? How did the interview format help or hinder that?
Were there any characters that you identified with more than others? Why is that?
What did you think of the narrator?
The narrator is posed as a character in a unique position. He’s anonymous not just to the reader but to almost all of the other characters as well. And while he’s nearly omnipotent when it comes to the events in the book, he’s very clearly not scientifically literate. What do you think of that deliberate choice by the author?
What did you think of the scientific elements of this story? Did you find them believable and internally consistent? Did Neuvel do a good job of explaining them sufficiently (making them approachable to the reader) without interrupting the flow of the narrative?
What was your impression of the clandestine nature of the artifact investigation? Did you find it believable that this kind of discovery would lead to these events, that the investigation would be carried out in this way?
If not, how did that impact your enjoyment of the story?
At one point, the narrator is being lambasted by the Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs about the potential cost of this project in human life, and the narrator says:
I wish I could tell you exactly how many lives this is worth losing, but I cannot. At some point we might decide that we could live with 1,151 dead, but not 1,152. It is, by definition, arbitrary.
What I can tell you is this: in an underground warehouse in Denver, there is definite proof that we are not alone in the universe … This will reshape this planet, and we have an opportunity to help steer that change. How many lives is that worth to you?
This is certainly one of the main themes of this story, and not an unusual theme throughout science fiction. How do you feel about the way Neuvel approaches it?
This story includes a number of emotional events. Do you think Neuvel was able to make those events effective and meaningful?
How did you respond to Vincent’s “accident”? What about his surgery?
How did you feel when Ryan returned to the team later in the book?
The narrator is visited more than once by a strange man who is apparently a descendant of the alien race that first left the artifacts on Earth. The story he tells is fantastic, yet he refuses to impart more than the barest minimum of information.
What did you think of that element of the story? The alternate history Neuvel posited for humanity’s advancement on Earth, the identity and culture of the beings responsible for the robot Themis, the threat to humanity that these beings pose, are all fascinating and weighty topics that Neuvel barely touches on – favoring a more personal viewpoint. How do you think these elements serve the story?
How did you respond to the imagery surrounding the history of the robot “Titans” and the myths they have inspired throughout humanity’s time on Earth? Did you enjoy this revelation? Why or why not?
In this book, many of the characters speak with the narrator about working not just to understand Themis but to “use” her. In fact, over 100 pages pass between the first mention of “using” her and Rose’s first mention of her power and the danger it poses. In that interview, she says
Up until now, I tried to ignore the fact that this might very well be a weapon, an enormously powerful weapon. But when I think about it, there’s simply no reason to build something this massive for anything else.
Did you come to that realization before the characters did? How did you feel about the approach these scientists and military personnel took to what was a very sensitive and highly dangerous project?
Will you read the sequel?