Only Human

With Sleeping Giants and Waking Gods, Sylvain Neuvel came up with two interesting, thought-provoking, and entertaining novels. Waking Gods ended up on my Top 10 of 2017 and I firmly believed that Only Human would be one of my favorite reads of 2018.

Imagine my shock when I realized that this final installment was a world away from its predecessors in terms of quality and originality. I'm extremely sad to report that Only Human is, thus far at least, my biggest disappointment of the year. And due to the fact that it's such a lackluster effort, to a certain extent it killed the entire series and will make it hard for me to recommend The Themis Files in the future.

Here's the blurb:

Brilliant scientist Rose Franklin has devoted her adult life to solving the mystery she accidentally stumbled upon as a child: a huge metal hand buried beneath the ground outside Deadwood, South Dakota. The discovery set in motion a cataclysmic chain of events with geopolitical ramifications. Rose and the Earth Defense Corps raced to master the enigmatic technology, as giant robots suddenly descended on Earth’s most populous cities, killing one hundred million people in the process. Though Rose and her team were able to fend off the attack, their victory was short-lived. The mysterious invaders retreated, disappearing from the shattered planet . . . but they took the scientist and her crew with them.

Now, after nearly ten years on another world, Rose returns to find a devastating new war—this time between humans. America and Russia are locked in combat, fighting to fill the power vacuum left behind after the invasion. Families are torn apart, friends become bitter enemies, and countries collapse in the wake of the battling superpowers. It appears the aliens left behind their titanic death machines so humankind will obliterate itself. Rose is determined to find a solution, whatever it takes. But will she become a pawn in a doomsday game no one can win?

As I mentioned in my previous reviews, Neuvel's The Themis Files is reminiscent of Andy Weir's The Martian and Max Brooks' World War Z, but only as far as the format is concerned. Once again in Only Human, the tale is told through a variety of recorded interviews, mission logs, and journal entries. I had doubts regarding such a dossier-like format at the beginning of Sleeping Giants, yet one soon got used to the unconventional narrative structure. True, it remains an unorthodox way to convey the story, but it sort of gives this series its unique flavor. For some reason, though it did work well in the first two volumes, it was often off-putting in this final installment. Then again, so many facets of this books were irritating, and even exasperating, that it had to take its toll on the narrative structure as well.

Thankfully, Waking Gods did not suffer from the middle book syndrome. Sleeping Giants was released without much fanfare, with no lofty expectations. But with the critical and commercial success of his scifi debut, the second volume had to deliver in order to satisfy fans. Which it did, with the sequel living up to the potential generated by Sleeping Giants and then some! Understandably, expectations were high for the third installment and I wonder if the pressure got to Sylvain Neuvel and had a negative influence on his writing process. For, in the end, other than in a few scenes, Only Human features nothing that made the first two volumes such compelling reads.

The characterization, which was the heart and soul of both Sleeping Giants and Waking Gods, was by far the weakest aspect of this novel. Surprisingly, it was so poor and occasionally insipid that it made this book a failure to launch from the get-go. In the past, the interviews and journal entries allowed readers to delve into the psyche of every character and to get to know them on a deeper level. The debriefings and interviews used to be conducted by a shadowy figure of power whose identity was finally revealed in Waking Gods. For the most part, in Only Human he was replaced by Major Katherine Lebedev. A member of the Russian Main Intelligence Agency, it looks as though she was taken straight out of a Glee episode. Vapid in every sense of the word, she has absolutely no credibility. And as the main pillar of the entire narrative structure, she almost single-handedly killed this novel. Neuvel's gag-a-minute attempts made for some dumb and weak humor. A far cry from the brilliance and the wit which he demonstrated in the first two installments. The mission logs from Captain Bodie Hough and Lieutenant Barbara Ball are even more stupid, if you can believe that. How an author who has shown how intelligent and thought-provoking he could be fall so low as to come up with something this half-assed, I'll never know. Indeed, it often felt as though this was written by a totally different person. Dr. Rose Franklin and Vincent Couture are back, of course, but the supporting cast is vastly inferior to those featured in the prequels. The absence of the powerful, high-placed, and cold-blooded man in charge of the interviews is a game-changer as far as the narrative is concerned. Kara Resnik's death was also deeply felt in sequences that have to do with Vincent and Eva. The mysterious Mr. Burns makes a few appearances and is always as fascinating as he used to be. But overall, the characterization was a disaster.

Both Sleeping Giants and Waking Gods were strange sorts of hybrids. The books were science fiction works that explored larger-than-life concepts and their impacts on the protagonists themselves and the world at large. In addition, they were political novels that explored the geopolitical conflicts caused by the shocking appearance of numerous robots similar to Themis all across the globe. Although science played a major role in both, I don't consider them to be hard scifi books. There were just enough scientific details to satisfy purists, yet the narrative was imbued with a sense of wonder that elevated these novels to another dimension. The realization that we are not alone in the universe and that an ancient civilization is light-years ahead of us technologically had dramatic repercussions all over the world, and now Earth seems threatened by that vastly superior foe. I feel that Sylvain Neuvel did a good job portraying just how arrogant and stupid mankind can be during times of crisis. And the way Waking Gods ended set the stage for what could only be a gripping finale. Why the author decided to dumb it all down, so to speak, in Only Human, I'll never know. The Themis Files were undoubtedly one of the most captivating and engaging science fiction series of recent years and it had all the ingredients required for a grand endgame that would close the show with style and aplomb. Alas, it was not to be. . .

Unfortunately, by turning his back on everything that made the first two volumes such enthralling and entertaining reads, even though things get better closer to the end, this novel can be nothing but a major disappointment. There are a few scenes that recapture the brilliance and intelligence of the prequels, but these are few and far between. All in all, Only Human was an uninspired effort in which poor characterization and a weak plot were replaced by lame attempts at humor. All filler and no killer for most of the novel, I'm afraid. It often felt as though Sylvain Neuvel knew exactly how he wanted to end this trilogy, but he had no idea how to get readers from the moment the robot showed up on another planet to the endgame between Russia and the USA back on Earth.

The final verdict: 5/10

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2 commentaires:

Eric Leblanc said...

Not surprised. In book 2 Neuvel killed off the characters that made the first two books awesome, Kara and the mysterious man. These interviews worked because of both of them. It was a mistake and in fact, and it was also unnecessary.

Allan said...

Spoiler alert please