The term “cinematic” often gets batted around when describing novels, especially when said books belong to genre-bending categories. But there are some novels that feel truly filmic in nature, as though one could just as well ingest them in the dark, with a bag of popcorn and the added pleasure of surround sound. Sleeping Giants, the first in a new series called The Themis Files, is one of the most recent examples of this phenomenon—and an exciting and promising one at that. Helmed by debut Canadian novelist Sylvain Neuvel, Sleeping Giants is a sci-fi thriller of the highest order, and its breakneck pace, compelling characters, and epistolary narrative structure all fuel the book’s compulsive and rewarding reading experience. Though the novel itself may not be made of celluloid, its DNA has an undeniable foothold in the cinematic.
With unbending charm, Neuvel describes the road to publishing Sleeping Giants as one speaks of a night spent sleeping beneath the stars: awestruck and in disbelief at one’s own good fortune. The novel’s plot took shape in early 2013, when Neuvel began building a robot for his young son. A self-professed tinkerer and toymaker, Neuvel wanted to give his son something tangible to play with, something that could feed the boy’s boundless imagination. But like most children, his son was curious about his new friend.
“He started asking all kinds of questions,” Neuvel says. “ ‘What kind of robot? Where is it from? What does it do? Who made it?’ I didn’t have any answers, and he wanted a back story to go with the story.”
Neuvel put the project on hold for a week, during which he introduced his son to episodes of the 1970s Japanese anime series Grendizer. Extremely popular during Neuvel’s own childhood growing up in Quebec, Grendizer chronicles the journey of a giant robot and an escapee from a far-off planet who uses the robot to save Earth from total annihilation. During their anime marathon, Neuvel began to consider the possibilities for his son’s robot and, from there, considered the possibilities of a world in which humans discover gargantuan, latent, alien-made robots beneath the Earth’s surface. Sleeping Giants found its genesis there.
While developing the details, Neuvel’s first thought was that the general human population wouldn’t be privy to the robots’ existence. The information, he insists, would be highly restricted and classified, shared only by a select few. “But,” Neuvel adds, “it would probably leave a paper trail of sorts.”
Though Sleeping Giants didn’t begin as a novel—epistolary or otherwise—Neuvel sat down to write the story swirling in his head. About 40,000 words later, he realized that he had the makings of something much larger than he’d anticipated. The “paper trail,” as Neuvel deems it, is arguably the book’s pièce de résistance: the narrative is told through fictional primary source documents—mostly transcribed interviews but also diary entries, newspaper clippings, and even surveillance reports. Characters are developed almost entirely through dialogue, which oftentimes thins the line between what is said and what is actually meant. This lends a strong sense of mystery to Sleeping Giants, with the reader constantly trying to guess at the true nature of its characters’ motivations.
Neuvel is a fan of the epistolary novel for this very reason: unreliable characters. As an adolescent, he read the seminal Les Liaisons Dangereuses, which he describes as a turning point.
“That novel just blew my mind,” Neuvel says. “It’s a whole novel of letters, and everyone is lying to everyone. Basically, no one is telling the truth. Even when they try and tell the truth, it’s always a bit twisted. And you have to figure out the story by figuring out the characters and when they’re telling the truth and when they’re lying.” He adds, “I loved that feeling as a reader, that part of it was my work and the author trusted me to do that.”
While Sleeping Giants certainly departs from Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ theme of debauchery, Neuvel is no less concerned with ethical and moral dilemmas. During a critical moment, for instance, the price of human life is called into question: at what point, the novel asks, are ordinary populations expendable in the face of scientific exploration? So much of the narrative is also about the pursuit of something one loves, possibly to the extent that it might prove fatal. All of the characters put themselves at risk for the greater good: Rose, the protagonist and a physicist whose childhood is marked by the discovery of the robot; Kara, the brash pilot whose genetic makeup proves crucial during the excavation period; and Vincent, the linguist who undergoes severe physical transformation in order to sustain the project. Even the nefarious interviewer, a character who remains unnamed throughout and whose mysterious persona, Neuvel promises, will become clearer in the second book, has moments where he risks exposure and personal gain in order to make sure the larger plan stays on track.
“To me, this book is about human nature and the questions we need to face if we’re going to evolve,” Neuvel notes. “It’s also about how human nature takes over, no matter how big the stakes are. If you’re saving the world and your girlfriend dumps you the day before, somehow that will become more important for you than saving the world for even a short period.”
Neuvel finished Sleeping Giants in a year’s time, during which he balanced writing with extensive bouts of research. Because he has a Ph.D. in linguistics from the University of Chicago, so many of the other aspects of the book remained unknown. He needed, for instance, to understand critical components of physics in order to believably write Rose’s sections. He also researched military operations, visited conspiracy theory websites in order to decide where to locate Rose and her team’s secret base, and even spent time looking at maps of Syria so he could render the helicopter route over one of the robot’s burial fields.
Neuvel says, joking, “I’m probably filed with every government agency there is in America.”
In early 2014, Neuvel made a promise to himself: if he didn’t sell his book by July, he would self-publish. The months moved forward with no publishing agreement in sight, and so Neuvel made copies in order to get positive blurbs for the finished product. On a whim, he sent one to Kirkus, and what happened next, he insists, jokingly, should be made into a feel-good movie: after receiving a starred review from Kirkus, he was contacted by several producers, one of whom worked for Sony. At the same time, he was contacted by Del Rey, who showed interest in publishing the book. He scored deals with each; the whole process took only a month.
Securing both book and film deals has been quite the joy ride for Neuvel, who wrote from an early age—everything from poetry to comics, the latter of which he sold to neighbors in order to buy candy—and confesses that his entire life has been “shaped by movies.” It’s a great moment for the Canadian author, one he is looking forward to extending as the series continues. To date, Del Rey has contracted three books, though Neuvel isn’t convinced The Themis Filesis meant to be a trilogy.
As for the reception of Sleeping Giants? “I have no expectations whatsoever,” Neuvel says. “I just really want [readers] to have fun. There’s food for thought in the book, and it asks a lot of questions, and if it can spark some thinking or some great discussions, all the better.
“But,” he continues, “I wrote it for people to have a good time. All I want is for someone to open it and be happier when they close it.”
Rebecca Rubenstein is the editor-in-chief of the literary magazine Midnight Breakfast, and works as a bookseller in San Francisco.