Canadian writer Sylvain Neuvel makes a thrilling debut with Sleeping Giants, a gripping sci-fi adventure that is innovative both in plot and structure. It all begins when a young girl stumbles (literally) into the archaeological find of the century: an enormous robotic hand created by an ancient alien race.
Fast-forward some 25 years, and that girl is now a scientist in charge of a military-run operation to find and retrieve other parts of that robot, which could be the greatest weapon the world has ever seen. Told in journal entries of the various characters as well as their interviews with a mysterious man who works as a go-between for the project and the government higher-ups, Sleeping Giants is an imaginative tour de force that will appeal to science fiction and mystery fans alike.
How did the story first come to you: was it that image of the giant hand, an idea about the plot, a particular character, or something else?
The idea for the book came while watching Japanese anime about a giant robot. I asked my son if he’d like a toy robot but he wanted to know everything about it before I built it. We were watching "Grendizer" together and I started thinking about what it would be like if we found some giant alien artifact in real life. That got me started, but I tend to picture things before I write them. I need a strong visual to get me going. For this book, it was the little girl in the giant metal hand.
How did you arrive at the format for the book (a combination of interview transcripts, news briefs and journal entries)? Did you try other approaches first?
Not really. I knew it was going to be epistolary from the start. That said, I couldn’t find the right way to do it at first. I wanted to switch perspective between chapters, but I thought they would feel somewhat disconnected. I needed something to hold everything together, a common thread. That’s when I got the idea for the interviewer. Once I figured him out, everything else fell into place.
Was it difficult to figure out the structure—which moments to show and what to skip over?
Yes. I wrote the prologue first. Then I structured the whole book. That took a while. I’d picture a scene in my head, then I’d figure out the best way to present it. Do I show it as a future plan, while it’s happening, or do I deal with the consequences before I let the reader know what really happened? Who gets to talk about it? The one who is most affected by the situation or the one with more knowledge about the facts? Can I create more anticipation if I change the time or the point of view? Sometimes, the best thing to do is to skip that moment completely and let the readers figure it out on their own.
Reading the book, it’s hard not to “cast” the characters. For instance, I kept seeing the interviewer as Victor Garber, who plays Sydney Bristow’s dad on “Alias.” The evolution of his sympathies through the book was really interesting. Did you have a particular model or type in mind for that character?
I love the interviewer. I wouldn’t object to your casting, but I couldn’t really see his face when I wrote the book. He was all about the voice for me. Now, if I were making the movie, I’d probably go for Idris Elba, or Ray Stevenson, the way he looked in "Dexter," season 7.
"Would such a discovery bring humanity together, or would we wage wars over it?"
Do you find it scary or comforting to imagine a race of super-advanced aliens out there keeping an eye on us?
I think the most interesting question is how we’d deal with that knowledge. Would such a discovery bring humanity together, or would we wage wars over it? Fear of the other is a frequent theme in the news these days and I think it begs the question as to how we’d deal with a different species. I’m much more scared of us than I am of them.
What books or movies do you see as having influenced Sleeping Giants?
I wanted this story to be about us. Close Encounters of the Third Kind is probably the closest thing to what I was aiming for. Here’s a movie about an alien encounter and we’re watching a guy sculpting mashed potatoes and wrecking his backyard. I loved that. Contact is also similar in spirit to Sleeping Giants. The book is also part political thriller. I see a lot of The Hunt for Red October in there as well.
Did you learn anything while researching the book that surprised you?
I learned a whole lot of interesting things researching that book. The science was all new to me, so was everything military. What surprised me the most was probably how many websites are dedicated to gathering evidence of secret government bases. I was looking for one plausible site to build one. I ended up with dozens to choose from. The time and energy that went into many of these websites is absolutely fascinating.
You have a PhD in linguistics—what originally interested you about that area? What effect do you think this background has had on your writing?
I dropped out of high school when I was 15. When I went back to school for a B.A., linguistics seemed like a good idea, a way to combine my passion for language and science. I’m not sure what kind of influence my linguistics background has on my writing. I understand the mechanics behind some of the humor, for example, but I don’t know if I would have done the same thing without that knowledge. There’s a linguist on the team, though, and chances are he’ll have to work a bit throughout the series.
What do you like to read for fun?
These days, I’m looking for quick reads. I like books with science in them, but I’ll try just about anything if it looks interesting. Favorite one I read lately: The Flicker Men by Ted Kosmatka. That book is so good. I wish I had more time. I don’t read nearly as much as I’d like to, and I buy books way faster then I go through them. I think it was Stephen King who said: “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have time to write.” To that, I’d like to add time to exercise, fix the house, build robots . . .
I’ve read that you like to build toys and small robots for your son—are there any that you’re especially proud of?
I do. I like to make physical objects. I work on a computer all day, then I go home and I write on the computer. I like to build things. I haven’t in the past couple years, but I usually spend six or seven months making my Halloween costume in my spare time. I built a robot from my book for my son. It looks good, but it’s not really playable. The idea was cool: it comes in pieces that are held together with magnets, but it keeps falling apart. I’m shopping for a 3D printer so I can build him a better one. I made him a spaceship bed, inspired by the Raptors in “Battlestar Galactica,” with a cannon, a joystick, some buttons. He really likes it. I do too. [photo at right]
Sleeping Giants is Book 1 of the Themis Files; can you talk a little about what we can look forward to in the sequel(s)? Anything else you’re excited about working on right now?
I don’t want to spoil anything, but I can tell you that the stakes are even higher in book two. There are some questions being answered, some new ones being asked. There will be at least three in the Themis Files. I’m having a blast in that universe, and I love the people who live in it. I can’t wait to share.
RELATED CONTENT: Read our review of Sleeping Giants.
Author photo by James Andrew Rosen.