Atomic Turquoise Bat Mitzvah
by Sylvain Neuvel
De Rey, 2016
With the 2016 Summer Blockbuster season under way, film audiences are about to gorge their eyes on the traditional mix of superheroes (Captain America: Civil War), animated storybooks (Finding Dory), and nostalgic science fiction (Independence Day: Resurgence). What moviegoers won’t see this year is a sequel to director Guillermo del Toro’s 2013 giant robot bash-’em-up Pacific Rim.
Del Toro’s grandly crafted—if dizzyingly adolescent—homage to a genre best known to consumers of Japanese manga and anime, grossed $411 million worldwide, and had been deemed worthy of a sequel by Legendary Entertainment in 2014. In September of 2015, however, the film stalled out until February of this year, when the studio finally announced that Pacific Rim 2 would lumber on with Del Toro producing and Steven S. DeKnight (Smallville) directing. So we’ll see it in a few years.
This summer, fans of mechanoid brawling still have reason to celebrate, not because the zealously brooding anime Neon Genesis Evangelion has been repackaged for the umpteenth time, but because debut author Sylvain Neuvel’s Sleeping Giants has rushed into the gap. In the novel, comprised of interviews, journal entries, and news reports, pieces of a huge mechanical humanoid are found to be buried all across the Earth. Where the pieces come from and why shape a central mystery that’s enlivened by luminous characterizations and narrative patience. Noteworthy is that this book has zero rock ’em sock ’em moments—no actual giant robot battles.
What fans should love is the idea that giant robots, despite their inherently visual allure, can also succeed in the form of a plain old novel. Sleeping Giants unfolds with all of the first-contact wonder that Pacific Rim very much wants to skip in favor of battered monster corpses cratering Hong Kong’s financial district. We meet Rose Franklin, the first of several protagonists, at the age of eleven. It’s her birthday, and she’s just received a new bike. An inquisitive loner, she rides by herself around the hills of her home near Deadwood, South Dakota. Because it’s fall, and “the forest had turned into a motley landscape and given new depth to the hillsides,” she rides a bit far, and it grows a bit dark.
On the way home, Rose gets off her bike to investigate an “eerie turquoise glow” among the trees. After suddenly falling through the ground and losing consciousness, she awakes the next morning to her father and emergency crews standing along the edge of the square, house-sized hole, fifty-feet above her. The entire chamber, enclosed by walls covered in exotic glyphs, gives off ambient turquoise light. Beneath the leaf-litter under Rose is something else, curvy and metallic. A giant open hand.
Neuvel’s page and a half prologue detailing this is written in the first person. Rose is a charmingly outsider personality with which to start the narrative, growing lovable as we learn that
I always felt a little out of place with other kids my own age. So when birthdays came by, my parents usually invited the neighbors’ kids over. There were a lot of them, some whose names I barely knew. They were all very nice, and they all brought gifts. So I stayed. I blew out the candles. I opened the presents. I smiled a lot. I can’t remember most of the gifts because all I could think about was getting out and trying that bicycle.
With only a few exceptions, the rest of Sleeping Giants is presented as files in the workload of an undisclosed interviewer. Neuvel immediately jumps forward seventeen years, to when Dr. Rose Franklin is a senior scientist with the Enrico Fermi Institute of Chicago University. She’s serendipitously taken over research of the twenty-three foot hand (with NSA funding) after the military failed to decipher the glyphs and true nature of the object. They did determine that the hand is composed mostly of the rare heavy metal iridium, weighs thirty-two metric tons, and is at least five thousand years old.
Neuvel’s interview format lends itself to the rapid-fire construction of the narrative’s sci-fi scaffolding. Because the first several chapters must believably establish the hand in the real world, the science involved must be clear and engaging. That means conversational. The interviewer—who usually speaks with the cast face-to-face, but sometimes digitally—peppers Rose with questions, including some regarding her theory that the hand and glowing panels are alien. If we were a mature spacefaring race watching an adolescent one, she says,
You’d want to know when they reached a sufficient understanding of the universe for you to be able to communicate with them in a meaningful way. It would most likely have to be measured technologically. It seems reasonable to assume that most or all species similar to humans would go through more or less the same evolutionary steps. Make fire, invent the wheel, those types of things. Flight might be a good criteria, or spaceflight…
…being able to harness nuclear energy would also be a pretty good criterion. Now—and this is the clever part—if you designed these things to react specifically to argon-37, they could only be discovered once that civilization managed to tap the power of the atom.
An underground nuclear test will turn atmospheric calcium into argon isotope 37. This fact helps Neuvel introduce U.S. military helicopter pilot Kara Resnik, whose vehicle shorts out and crashes while searching for evidence of nukes in Syria. The interviewer teams Rose with Kara and another military pilot, Ryan Mitchell, after locating the giant’s forearm in Turkey. Rose creates an Argon Rich Compound for Aerial Nocturnal Application (ARCANA) to help the mechanical segments activate and rise through the Earth, anywhere they’re buried. Aside from the chaos this may cause in populated areas (including Tennessee, Vermont, and Kansas), the activation creates electromagnetic disturbance, which makes flying vehicles near the segments hazardous.
The final player introduced is linguist Victor Couture, who must decrypt the panels’ symbols and later help with the puzzle of animating the assembled robot. By the time we meet him, it’s clear that the interviewer is here not only to psychologically sound out these characters, but continuously needle them—often with the same assumptions that the reader has. He says to Victor, who’s behind in his contributions to the team effort, “In my experience, people with superior intellect have a tendency to react poorly to failure. Do you ever think you might not succeed?” The interviewer also broaches the subject of sexual attraction between chilly Kara and noble Ryan, an element that Neuvel nurtures from plot distraction to vital propellant.
A novel that’s almost pure dialogue would implode if the writer couldn’t churn out crackling reams of it, page after page. Thankfully, Neuvel can. Like a keen-eared student of the best thrillers and modern television, he saves his most dramatic pivots for when the curtain closes on a scene. Better still, Neuvel knows that when verbal exchanges float independent of third-person descriptions, their potential voltage skyrockets. Here’s the interviewer (whose speech is always in bold) and Ryan finishing their first discussion about his role in the giant-assembling enterprise:
—Do you think what we’re after has military applications?
—That is not my primary concern. I do believe we might learn something—a lot, actually —from it’s discovery. Whether what we learn is of military interest or not, only time will tell. I am absolutely certain, however, that this project has a better chance of success with you and Ms. Resnik on board.
—Thank you, sir. I just don’t wanna find out I was part of someone’s secret agenda.
—Do you think I would tell you if you were?
—Then rest assured, Mr. Mitchell we are all in this together for the greater good.
While this moment drips with menace—and others prove genuinely gasp-inducing—it bears mentioning that Neuvel’s chosen style has serious limitations. There is no heart-stopping prose in Sleeping Giants. It’s an excellent page-turner, as a few have pointed out (Library Journal and Red Rising author Pierce Brown), in the same league with Max Brooks’s World War Z (2006) and Andy Weir’s The Martian (2011). Conversely, Neuvel makes no attempt to stand among recent authors like Rjurik Davidson (Unwrapped Sky) and Lawrence M. Schoen (Barsk), whose lush, haunting prose would make adapting either novelist’s work for the screen a nightmare. Comparisons to The Martian are indeed shorthand for “Sleeping Giants is ready to be filmed.”
Some of Neuvel’s scenes lack the grandiosity expected, like Weir’s character never bothering to convey the beauty of Mars’ landscape—though director Ridley Scott did a fine job, wide-screening vista after craggy vista of the red planet. One of these scenes includes the first person journal entry recorded by Kara as she climbs inside the robot. This is our first glimpse of the pilot chamber and the device one wears to drive the robot, and she says,
I’m in. The room is still well lit. The light is very… cozy, like a room with a fireplace. I just closed the inner hatch. I’m off the barstool, now approaching the top station. Rose, I know you think this looks like a straightjacket, but it’s pretty badass if you ask me. Take it off that pole hanging from the ceiling and I think it would make Batman proud if you spray painted it black. I’m sliding my arms in…
Not quite the dramatic equivalent of, “Duuuuuude,” but because Kara herself is no poet, it certainly feels like an instance in which Neuvel cedes the imaginative lifting to a storyboard artist. Comparisons to World War Z, however, make no sense except in stating that both novels feature news reports and a fractured global narrative. Where Max Brooks dispenses with a character-driven plot and emotional arcs, Neuvel speeds into those writerly curves, making Rose, Kara, Ryan, Victor, and the interviewer, distinct personalities who shape the story.
The latter half of Sleeping Giants explores the geopolitical ramifications of a singular, walking weapon residing on Earth, and features some satisfying nods to history. “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds,” says Kara, quoting both Oppenheimer and Vishnu, from the Bhagavad-Gita. Between barrels of popcorn, this summer’s filmgoers may want to experience a robot story that’s come of age, that doesn’t revel in CGI whiz-bangery and property damage. Regarding humanity, the interviewer is told by a secret contact that, “this is your bat mitzvah. You can play with atoms, you can sit with the grown-ups.”
Giant robots, while psychologically complex and visually astonishing, have yet to sit with the grown-ups at the literary table, either. Neuvel brings them as close as they’ve ever been, though he doesn’t quite invest them with the cinematic heft that Daniel H. Wilson gives regular-sized bots in Robogenesis (2014). Ironically, Del Rey and Sony film executives contacted Neuvel about his self-published novel simultaneously. With a full-blown trilogy planned—and a Hollywood incursion eventual—we can hope that whatever comes next will follow in Sleeping Giants‘s thoughtful footsteps.
Justin Hickey is a freelance writer, and editor here at Open Letters Monthly.