First contact without any actual aliens appearing (yet is to be seen), and, still, Sylvvain Neuvel makes this premise work in his sci-fi thriller debut. Sleeping Giants is an impressive read with intriguing characters, interesting story and premise, solid writing, and suspenseful pacing. Humans discover parts of an alien artifact from thousands of years ago and put together a team to piece this artifact together and research its capabilities. The story is told by interviews and journal entries, which creates a fascinatingly fragmented effect with a sense of scope.
The team makes for a hodgepodge cast. Dr. Rose Franklin is the team leader and physicist who is the glue holding this project together. Kara and Ryan are Army pilots. Kara is a tough, abrasive woman who only wants to be a pilot. Ryan is the Captain America-type of nice guy. Vincent is a brilliant linguist with ego to match who is brought in to make sense of the alien markings. Alyssa is a geneticist who does not get along with anyone and has her own ideas for running things. There is an unnamed puppet master with serious political clout and power to pull the strings on this project. With a story told through interviews, transcripts, and similar, readers learn about the characters through their dialogue, accounts, and interactions with each other. There are surprising moments of humor and a lot of chemistry that make the characters engaging. Neuvel also turns this style to effectively capture a sense of scope with the global politics and juggling that happens with a project that is much bigger than one country.
The premise that aliens exist and are much more advanced is not new, but this story feels fresh and intriguing. It never feels oversimplified or like Neuvel is showing off how many smart ideas he can cram into one story. The team piecing together the alien artifact wonder what is the purpose behind it--is it a test that humans can only complete when they reach a sufficiently advanced level, or is it to see what they do with the completed artifact, or something else even? There are some tantalizing clues to its possible origin, myths with some possible grain of truth. The guessing is even more intriguing as speculation, and Neuvel hints but does not provide an answer yet. Without any actual aliens, the focus is on the human response, complex and varied, to proof of an alien presence and technology. It becomes a strange and new kind of space race. There are those curious few who want to know and understand it all to those who see the artifact as a weapon to control. Governments are thinking beyond one country’s borders and rethinking what "us" means.
Look for The Sleeping Giants in the VBPL Catalog. The sequel, The Waking Gods, comes out April 2017. For other first contact works, try Cixin Lu’s award-winning Three Body Problem and Contact (book by Carl Sagan and movie directed by Robert Zemeckis). For science fiction with alien relations, try Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game (see review) and Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch books (see review).
Review by Tracy V.