Cover image of "Sleeping Giants" by Sylvain Neuvel, a sci-fi novel

Every once in a while you come across a work of fiction so puzzling that you simply can’t put it down. No matter that the story seems not just farfetched but downright silly. The narrative drive, the sheer suspense, keep you turning the pages all the way to the end. If you can’t figure out why, it’s probably that you keep wondering whether the whole thing makes any sense at all. At any rate, that was the experience I had when reading Sleeping Giants by the Canadian author Sylvain Neuvel. This debut sci-fi novel is strong on plotting but weak on plausibility. Hard science fiction it’s not.

Here, more of less, is how the novel opens. Rose Franklin, an 11-year-old girl living in South Dakota, walks across a field one day only to find the ground vanishing from under her. Much later, when she regains consciousness, she sees a photo of herself lying far down at the bottom of a perfectly square hole in the palm of an enormous metal hand. Scientists learn that the hand is made from an alloy unknown on Earth and is 6,000 years old. The four walls of the hole where it lies are covered with strange symbols that correspond to no language known to humankind.

Sleeping Giants (Themis Files #1 of 3) by Sylvain Neuvel ★★★★☆

Twenty years later, Rose holds a Ph.D. in Physics from the University of Chicago and works at the Enrico Fermi Institute. There she heads a team attempting to interpret the symbols and learn more about the hand. In an interview conducted by a mysterious, unnamed government official, she reports that the hand weighs 32 metric tons. But the hand consists mostly of the extremely heavy metal iridium and should weigh ten times as much.

The only possible conclusion based on all these facts is that the hand is the product of an extraterrestrial intelligence. Unsurprisingly, the US government has seized control of the investigation. Rose’s interviewer, who may or may not be a senior official of the CIA or NSA, has become the director of the project. Soon the goal becomes to find the arm and, presumably, later, the other parts of the enormous body the team is convinced they’ll find.

This sci-fi novel is the first of two books that comprise the “Themis Files.” The text consists of a series of “files,” brief interviews conducted by the director and oral diary entries by Rose and other members of the team assembled to work with her. The story centers around the work of five central characters: Rose, the unnamed director, two US Army helicopter pilots, and a young linguist from Quebec. Suffice it to say that their interaction is eventful. I won’t spoil the story by explaining any more. After all’s said, it’s a good story.

About the author

Like one of the principal characters in Sleeping Giants, Sylvain Neuvel is a Québécois. He was a high school dropout who later received a Ph.D. in linguistics from the University of Chicago. Sleeping Giants in his first novel.

Waking Gods, the second book in the Themis Files, is reviewed at Aliens, giant robots, and a motley collection of scientists. And I’ve also reviewed the first book in Neuvel’s newer series, A History of What Comes Next (Take Them to the Stars #1) by Sylvain Neuvel (An alternate history of the space race).

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