Only Human by Sylvain Neuvel

Michael Joseph (US: Del Rey) | 2018 (US: 1 May; UK: 3 May) | 336p | US and UK review copies | Buy the book: UK/US

Only Human by Sylvain NeuvelOnly Human concludes the Themis Files, a trilogy that began with the superb Sleeping Giants. You really need to have read the first two novels first – and why would you not? Giant robots! Aliens! – and this review assumes that you have and don’t mind hearing bits about what has gone before.

Ten years have passed since the events of Waking Gods and they have been momentous years, not least for Dr Rose Franklin, Vincent and his daughter Eve. They’ve spent the time on the homeworld of the alien creators of the giant robots. And this planet is different in every single way and not just because its inhabitants are blue and hairless. This is a world that cannot make up its mind about what to do with these human – and helpless – interlopers. And this forms one strand of Only Human – the life of our humans on this alien planet and how each of them responds to it in a different way. Eve, just a child when she arrived, is bound to be shaped the most by what happens.

The other strand follows Rose, Vincent and Eve after they return to Earth – to Russia – and find their own homeworld distinctly changed and extremely troubled. Countries now have a far better way to annihilate one another – two giant robots which are built for war. Rose is determined to help the world find peace but she must also help those she loves to do the same.

Only Human by Sylvain Neuvel US ednOnly Human continues the narrative style of the previous two novels, comprising mission logs and interviews. This does mean that we lose some of the wonder of the alien planet as we ‘see’ it only through the dialogue of our humans and, not surprisingly, descriptions are few and far between, but it does add an immediacy to the narrative as well as build on the personalities of Rose, Vincent and Eve. It certainly adds colour. I loved the voice of the Russian interrogator Katherine in particular. Some moments are very funny and witty.

I didn’t find the narrative technique as successful this time and I think this is partly an inevitable consequence of the fact that we have lost key characters along the way. I missed the voice of one in particular enormously. But the other reason is because the mission logs from the alien planet don’t seem especially plausible, that they’re there to continue the narrative style of the previous books even though they don’t seem real. I couldn’t understand how or why these logs were recorded. They also meant that we missed out to some extent on understanding the inhabitants of this strange place. I really like the linguistic touches, though, and the problems of communication and the inevitable misunderstandings.

This is a novel with a political message. It presents a warning about the dangers facing our planet when countries refuse to understand one another. Full out war is on the cards and we’re left in no doubt as to the responsibility of the world’s powers to reach a compromise with those they cannot understand. And the same goes for the relationship between humans and aliens. How can one trust or forgive when mistakes can cost millions of lives? We hear about the segregation of people on Earth – all people are rated for the purity of their blood. There is similar xenophobia on the alien world. I think in part this is over-laboured when some subtlety might have made a more effective, less preachy message, but it’s a fascinating portrait of a possible future.

As this completes the trilogy, a reader must hope for resolution and I really did like the way in which Only Human ended. I don’t think that the third novel is as successful as the previous two but judged as a whole this is a fantastic trilogy and I have loved it. The giant robots are so hard to resist and they are certainly scene stealers. I love stories of first contact, alien encounters and strange distant worlds and we have all of this here and I lapped it up. I can’t wait to see where Sylvain takes us to next – it could be absolutely anywhere.

Other reviews
Sleeping Giants
Waking Gods

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