The Light and the Dark Side of Science – A Review of Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel

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In recent years, I’ve become rather leery of comparisons between books and other books (or books and TV shows and movies) in a way that I wasn’t when I was younger. It used to be that, if someone wanted me to read something, they could get away with comparing it to something they knew I liked, and that would be enough to get me reading. Lately, however, I only take such recommendations from those I know very well, as such attempts at recommendation, if made by the media or by someone who is merely an acquaintance or a total stranger, rarely ever works out well.

The worst incidence of this was when I chose to pick up Son of the Morning by Mark Alder, partly because of the high star ratings it had on both Amazon and Goodreads, but also partly because the blurbs and reviews compared it to George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series – a series I actually enjoy. However, Son of the Morning turned out to be an enormous disappointment, with none of the depth and richness I’d expected due to the comparison to Martin’s series (a comparison made, it turns out, solely because both borrow from the Hundred Years’ War as inspiration). There have been other incidents prior to this, but Son of the Morning is pretty much the straw that broke the back of this particular camel; since then I taken comparisons between books with more than a grain of salt.

It is because of this very careful avoidance that I picked up Sylvain Neuvel’s Sleeping Giants without knowing how it was being compared to Andy Weir’s The Martian. This is a good thing, I think: I read The Martian the same year it came out, and love it enough that it sets the bar for any book that is compared to it. But I did not see those comparisons being made when I picked up Neuvel’s novel, and so have avoided having my opinion coloured by my experience with Weir’s book. And as I said, this is a good thing, because while there are some similarities between Neuvel’s book and Weir’s, they are two very different beasts.

In Sleeping Giants, a young girl makes the discovery of the century – perhaps the discovery of the millennium – when she falls through a hole in the ground and lands on top of a gigantic robotic hand. Fast forward to several years later, and that young girl, now the physicist Dr. Rose Franklin, has been called by the US military to work on the hand she accidentally discovered. In a series of audio transcripts and journal entries, Franklin and her newly-assembled team of specialists work together to understand how the robot works, aided by a mysterious benefactor who seems to have a special talent for getting them everything they need. And as that work brings them ever closer to unraveling the answers they are searching for, they must then decide what is to become of their knowledge – a decision that may affect the course of humanity for many generations to come.

One of the similarities that may be drawn between Sleeping Giants and The Martian is that both capture the thrill of scientific discovery. While the latter works within the more established bounds of science, based firmly on recent scientific discoveries, the former stretches the boundaries a little to accommodate the existence of an alien race. Still, anyone who has read The Martian, or at least seen the movie, will recognise shades of Mark Watney’s excitement in Dr. Rose Franklin’s voice in the following excerpt:

All I know is that this is bigger than me, my self-doubt, or any crisis of conscience. I now truly realize how profoundly insignificant I am compared to all this. Why does that make me feel so much better?

Another similarity that the characters of Sleeping Giants and The Martian share is the willingness to say “I don’t know”, and try something different:

—And you know what it is we are looking for?

—I haven’t the faintest idea. But I think that’s a good thing. I think those who looked at it before failed because they knew too many things, or so they thought.

—You will have to be a little less philosophical.

—I’m sorry. Generally speaking, people tend not to question what they’ve been told was true. Scientists are no different; they’ve just been told a lot more things. … We always look forward; never look back. But this thing…it’s different. It challenges us. It spits in the face of physics, anthropology, religion. It rewrites history. It dares us to question everything we know about ourselves…about everything. I must sound pretty philosophical again.

—A tad.

—I’d like to try someone who is not well trained, some hotshot student maybe, someone who doesn’t need to throw the rule book out the window because he hasn’t read it yet. We need to look at this from a whole new angle. I’ll contact the linguistics department and see if they have someone to suggest.

It is at this point, however, that Weir’s book and Neuvel’s diverge. Whereas in The Martian Watney “sciences the shit” out of everything and therefore celebrates science and the scientific method as a source of solutions, the characters in Sleeping Giant approach science a little differently. To be sure, science is a source of excitement and enthusiasm, but there is also a dark side to science. This is shown most clearly in the following excerpt:

I am building a weapon, and a formidable one at that. But that’s not the truth I’m hiding from. There’s no hiding from that. I spent most of my time understanding just how devastating it can be. I realize it may have been an instrument of peace, but not the kind of peace achieved through righteousness and understanding. This is meant to be a killing machine, one of such might and power that no one would stand against it.

So what’s the simple truth I’ve been biding from? It’s not that I’m building a weapon. It’s not even that it’ll kill people. That’s just a matter of time. What I’ve been trying so hard to deny is that I’m loving every minute of it. As much as I’d like to be principled enough to walk away from this, I’m having the time of my life. I’m a scientist, and this is what I breathe for. If I can learn to live with that, I might be able to sleep again.

I tried to find out what Oppenheimer’s thoughts were while it was all happening. He had this to say in 1945:

“But when you come right down to it the reason that we did this job is because it was an organic necessity. If you are a scientist you cannot stop such a thing. if you are a scientist you believe that it is good to find out how the world works; that it is good to find to what the realities are; that it is good to turn over to mankind at large the greatest possible power to control the world and to deal with it according to its lights and its values.”

To be fair to The Martian, it is not like that book can portray the darker side of science; the nature of the narrative simply precludes it. Nor does lack of that portrayal make it a bad book because, as I have said, that is simply not in the nature of the narrative. It also helps to have books like The Martian, that offer positive portrayals of science in a world where anti-intellectualism and anti-scientific thought are on the rise.

But it also helps to have books like Sleeping Giants as well. After all, science itself is neither good nor bad, but the people who use it, who control it and hold power over how and when and why it is used, can be. Science is a tool, but whether or not its discoveries help or harm humanity will always depend on who is in control of those discoveries. This novel tackles that head-on, addressing the consequences of leaving science in the hands of those who would use it for their own ends: a timely message, considering the world’s current political climate.

Overall, Sleeping Giants is an excellent start to a new series, one that attempts to understand not only the light, but the dark side of scientific inquiry. It is a reminder of how science can be used, not only for the good of humanity, but also to its detriment – depending, always, on who is holding the reins. I look forward to finding out where Neuvel takes this story, and the next book cannot come out soon enough.

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2 thoughts on “The Light and the Dark Side of Science – A Review of Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel

    1. I’m sure you’re not the only person who hasn’t read The Martian; we are all slaves to our whims and TBRs, and I can imagine how either or both would prevent you from reading it right away ;). I do hope you get to read it eventually though; such a funny and uplifting book :D.

      Thanks for the compliment on my review! I’m glad you think Sleeping Giants is great too. Can’t wait for the sequel :D.

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