Like many this past fall, I fell into the Upside-Down and binge-watched Stranger Things over the course of several days. (My binge-watching stamina is a little low, with the exception of the first 3 seasons of Downton Abbey, much to Michel’s extremely mild frustration.) Upon finishing, I wasn’t quite ready to leave the Guillermo-del-Toro-esq world of menacing demagorgons, alternate dimensions, talking Christmas lights, and the delightful kids (especially Dustin) in this wonderful homage to 80’s sci-fi. And so I’m pretty sure I googled “books like Stranger Things” and came up with Sylvain Neuvel’s completely different yet equally weird, inventive, and mostly fun first novel. Sleeping Giants.
One night, Rose Franklin is riding her bike near her home in South Dakota and disappears. When she is found just a little bit later, she is discovered siting on top of a giant silver hand at the bottom of a square shaft with glowing, carved walls. 17 years later, Rose is now a top physicist leading a top-secret team trying to crack the mystery of the giant hand and the hole it was in. All the while, Rose and her team are being interviewed by a nameless investigator whose allegiances and motivations are unclear. As Rose and her team make progress, it becomes clear that the mysteries of the hand are not of this world and could have greater and longer-lasting ramifications for humanity that ever imagined. Along the way, the relationships between this group of incredibly disparate people form and are tested, some surviving and some breaking, both with potentially disastrous consequences.
Ok, so not really Stranger Things, except for the kid on the bike disappearing near the woods at night piece. But the vibe was very consistent: a little bit exciting, a little bit creepy, and completely compelling with a lot more at stake than everyone realizes. What’s really interesting, though, is the form of the novel. It is told entirely from the point of view of this mysterious interviewer, and the text is transcripts of every conversation he (I think it makes clear at some point the narrator is a he) has with the other characters. So this sets up a really interesting situation for us as the reader: we meet every character through a specific, heightened, not normal situation and get to know them through the lens of someone studying them. As a result, it is almost impossible to tell which characters, including the interviewer, is reliable or not. Interestingly, this supposedly objective, emotionally unattached, morally ambiguous interviewer breaks from his persona a few times, indicating clear allegiances to certain members of the team and clear aversions to others. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say he has clear allegiances and aversions based on how well various characters’ goals and motivations align with his unstated higher goals and motivations. Either way, while we are never entirely sure who to trust, we are certainly nudged toward who to like. And I liked our unflappable investigator–especially in moments where he was, in fact, flapped.
The other element that I particularly liked about this novel is the focus on language. Neuvel is a Québécois linguist (with a PhD from the University of Chicago), and a lot of the major themes revolve around the role and power of language in this investigative process, whether it is deciphering the glowing glyphs lining the sides of the hole, understanding and following the “instruction” (or what they think are instructions) for the giant hand, or the simple and not-so-simple human to human communication that is basis for the narrative. The role of language and communication has always been a part of sci-fi, but I feel like recently it’s been gaining a new focus. Communication between our world and the Upside-Down was a key element in Stranger Things. The new movie, Arrival, is all about an alien invasion that is more an invitation to talk rather than a typical invasion. (Though as far as I know we don’t really know what a “typical” alien invasion would be.) But what all of these have in common is not just the focus on language but the focus on the power, danger, and value of language in communication and miscommunication. For in all 3 of these examples, our human language is not enough, and the characters are forced to find new ways to not just to communicate but to listen and understand. And that it right there: humans as a species already have enough trouble listening, understanding, and really communicating among ourselves. How can we be trusted to do so at a higher, perhaps more galactic level?
I shan’t say any more lest I completely spoil it, but I really enjoyed Sleeping Giants. I thought it was incredibly inventive, thought-provoking, and well-crafted. And don’t be afraid of the “sci-fi” designation. It’s really not traditional sci-fi, but it’s very much about the human experience and our role in the larger world. Lucky for me, it is the first in a trilogy, the second of which, Waking Gods, is already out. But lucky for you, if you don’t go in for series, it’s a very satisfying read on its own, and the ending is crafted beautifully for those readers who wish to continue and for those who don’t. I encourage you all to check it out; even if it doesn’t knock your socks off, it will certainly make you think.