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Sleeping Giants
by Sylvain Neuvel
Del Rey; 304pp; $26
Published: April 2016

The opening scene of this novel by the very talented Neuvel made me immediately think of the wonderful 1999 animated feature The Iron Giant directed by Brad Bird and based on a 1968 novel by poet Ted Hughes.

In Neuvel’s story, a young girl, Rose is riding her birthday bike out at twilight, goes down the road from her house and the ground gives way. Hours later she is found and rescued. But what she is lying on changes everything. It is an unattached giant metal hand surrounded by panels of writing in an unknown language.

Seventeen years later, Dr. Rose Franklin (now a physicist) finds herself involved with the mysterious giant hand once again. It is obviously of alien manufacture. And it turns out there are parts of this robot left buried all over the world. And its creation date?  Five to six thousand years ago.  Still, after 17 years, no one knows why it was dismembered (of course the first reason that pops up is to show we are advanced enough to find the parts and reconstruct it) and what is the robot’s purpose. There only appears to be the one robot, not several. How they discover the parts of this robot is fascinating.

When finally assembled, it is 20 stories high, humanoid female in form, though with backward facing knees.

The book focuses on Kara Resnick, a pilot in the Army, Ryan Mitchell, also a pilot in the Army, and Vincent Couture, a talented linguistic translator from Montreal (a subject {linguistics} in which Neuvel himself has a Ph.D.) Ryan and Kara are initially involved in the flights to retrieve the parts of the robot.  Vincent is hired in hopes he might be able to translate the still enigmatic panels of writing. Along with Dr. Franklin there is the creepy geneticist Alyssa Papantoniou who wants to know why Kara and Vincent have the ability to make the robot work—when others don’t. She is constantly probing them and taking samples. Ewww.

The story is told in journal entries and interviews by an unknown character who seems infallibly omniscient. Someone who knows just about everything has the ability to talk to just about everyone in power in the U.S. and seems to be overseeing/manipulating the whole the project of reconstructing this robot. He is phlegmatic and dry and only rarely lets his humanity show.

But he remains mute about HIS agenda and HIS real place in the scheme of things.

We also meet a very curious character named “Mr..Burns” (occupation unknown,) who meets with the Interrogator at a Chinese restaurant always insisting the Interrogator order the Kung Pao Chicken.  Mr. Burns might be descended from the aliens who had been left behind with the dismembered robot….but he won’t say for sure. He is fond of telling stories which may or may not contain big truths.

It’s a fascinating way to tell the story and gives the tale a great sense of immediacy with the first person narrative. The format makes it a bit choppy—but the story is so compelling it pulls you right along making it a quick read. The chapter headings are labeled as excerpts from files; they give the name of the interviewee and where they are. There are no dates. The Interrogator and everyone to whom he talks gives us the enticing picture of the secret research and development, and the world’s response when the robot is finally assembled and made to move. Though the language of its creators remains unknown, they realize the math that is used in the robot’s construction is base eight.

What is also discovered (not a surprise) is this robot has some very, very powerful defense capabilities. So, of course the world powers are intensely interested in its use as a weapon. Paranoia runs amuck!

The situation escalates when the robot is finally completed and the Interrogator realizes that they definitely have a weapon of mass destruction…especially after a particular fatal experiment.

The President decides the best thing the U.S. can do to diffuse the mounting tension and fear is dump it in a five-mile-deep trench in the Atlantic and leave it there until the world has the technology and knowledge to remove it safely. A noble gesture which lasts less than six months (though in that time the U.S. Presidents change) and a consortium of international concerns and business men is able to remove the robot, disassemble it and reassemble it in an underground bunker under a Puerto Rican national park with ocean access. It is pointed out that this underground bunker in Puerto Rico had obviously been a backup plan all along since it took years to build a place underground large enough to hold a 20-story-high robot.

Through the story, Kara, Ryan and Vincent are involved in an intense romantic triangle as they all have to work closely together trying to understand how to get the robot to move and function. Kara likes Ryan as a good friend, but he really likes her. Vincent and Kara, who both feel they are not suitable for each other, still have a strong romantic relationship. And it is these three characters and their friendship with Dr. Franklin that give the book emotional weight and a lot of the drama.

We do not get the whole story—I am hoping Neuvel is planning other volumes---but the fragments of what is going on out in the universe and what this robot represents are enticing. The characters are terrific and the ending is an unexpected surprise.

Del Rey gave out a lot of copies of this book at this year’s Phoenix ComicCon so they are certainly hoping this is a winner for them. It’s definitely worth a read. ~~ Sue Martin

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