A kid who finds something incredible in her backyard: It's not quite the most original setup imaginable for a science fiction story. What Sylvain Neuvel does with that setup, though, is nothing short of masterful. His debut novel, Sleeping Giants, begins when 11-year-old Rose Franklin falls into a hole that has opened up near her home in South Dakota. She's found soon after — sitting on top of a mechanical hand that's over 20 feet long from wrist to fingertip. No one can figure out how this giant, disembodied hand came to be buried beneath the Black Hills, or what the strange, glowing symbols on the walls surrounding the hand are supposed to mean. But one thing is clear: Rose is in for a ride. And in Neuvel's capable hands, so is the reader.
What seems at first like a retelling of The Iron Giant quickly morphs into something more complex. The story fast-forwards 17 years; Rose is now a physicist tasked with investigating exactly what the hand is made of. Its composition is nearly impossible, metallurgically speaking, and it weighs one-tenth of what it should. It's a mystery beyond human comprehension — that is, until Kara Resnik, an Army helicopter pilot, crashes while running a covert operation over Syria. The cause of her crash soon reveals itself: another piece of the giant robot has appeared.
As a French-Canadian linguist named Vincent Couture makes inroads toward decoding the symbols, he and the rest of Rose's investigating team unleash an international race to find the rest of the robot — a race that upends the geopolitical stage, even as it threatens Rose, Kara and Vincent, all of whom find themselves pawns in a game played by shadowy figures with less-than-noble plans for this new yet ancient technology.
Like Max Brooks' World War Z, Sleeping Giants is built like an oral history. Neuvel avoids conventional narrative altogether; in its place he uses a combination of journal entries, mission logs, official reports, news articles and interview transcripts. The interviews make up the bulk of the book, and that's where Neuvel shines brightest. His dialogue is crisp, efficient, compelling, nervy and full of nuance and subtle humor — and it shoulders the story with effortless grace.
Each transcription is conducted by a cryptic, unnamed figure who doesn't seem to belong to either the government or the private sector. Expedient, manipulative and cruel, the interviewer becomes a mystery unto himself as the desperate race to find pieces of the robot reveals a more profound conundrum: if the robot is the result of ancient human technology, or of alien technology — or both, or neither — how does each of those possibilities change the way humanity views its history and its place in the universe?
Neuvel doesn't shy away from wide-angle ideas and weighty ethical dilemmas, but he doesn't dwell too long on them either. As high-concept as it is, Sleeping Giants is a thriller through and through. Suspenseful and packed with surprises, it revels in the sci-fi trope of giant robots even as it carefully, craftily metes out its pulse-quickening delights. It's also the first book in a series, one that ends on a beautifully executed cliffhanger that feels well-earned instead of cheap. Neuvel is playing the long game here, and he's playing it superbly; not only is Sleeping Giants one of the most promising series kickoffs in recent memory, it's a smart demonstration of how science fiction can honor its traditions and reverse-engineer them at the same time.
Jason Heller is a senior writer atThe A.V. Club, a Hugo Award-winning editor and author of the novel Taft 2012.