In the first two books of the Themis Files, Dr. Rose Franklin discovered and rebuilt an alien war machine, nearly doomed the human race to extinction at the hands of an aggressively benevolent alien power, wrenched survival from the jaws of an untimely demise and was accidentally whisked off into space along with a linguist named Vincent, his daughter Eva and General Eugene Govender of the Earth Defense Corps. Now, nine years later, she must save her species again, this time from itself. With her friendships fractured and thrown into a cauldron of eugenics and Cold War imperialism, she must rely on her intelligence, instincts and stubborn unwillingness to accept the world as it is.
Sylvain Neuvel is an engaging and atypical writer. Like the rest of the series, Only Human is told entirely in transcripts of conversations, interviews and news reports, and Neuvel handles this challenging storytelling medium extremely well. The story he tells is interesting and compelling, in large part due to the complexity of the supporting cast. Although the most enigmatic character from the first two novels—his name is never revealed, even when he details his own history—is absent, Vincent’s struggle with the responsibilities of fatherhood, and the blurred moralities of geneticist Alyssa Papantoniou and GRU officer Katherine Lebedev admirably fill that void. Even if the ending has a touch of deus ex machina, this is a story driven by its people more than its plot.
The familiarity of that plot at times makes Only Human the literary equivalent of a cover band of a cover band composed of better musicians than the groups they mimic. It is most reminiscent of Carl Sagan’s Contact or the recent film Arrival, both of which also featured an alien species contacting humanity at some technological milestone, a group of scientists attempting to decode that civilization’s language to construct and use a giant machine, and a realization of the flaws in human nature. But Neuvel’s narrative technique sets the Themis Files apart from its predecessors and demonstrates that even the most well-worn stories can always be told better than before.
Only Human is a fitting conclusion to a well-crafted sci-fi fable of human fallacy. Its plot may cover previously trodden ground, but its narrative technique and character depth make it worth the reader’s time. Just be sure to read the rest of the trilogy first.