Sylvain Neuvel’s novel Sleeping Giants was quite a big deal back in the heady days of 2016: for a brief time it was surrounded by publishing hype and was a finalist for several awards. Today, it has a Goodreads rating of 3.9/5 (okay but not great) and a wiki and that’s about it. Ah, the ephemerality of publishing fame. (It does also have two sequels, but, details.)
Our story begins when a young girl, Rose, falls into a pit. Her rescuers see what she cannot: that she’s landed in the palm of a giant metal hand.
We pick up with Rose a couple of decades later: research has proved that the hand is attached to an equally ginormous arm, and that the entire limb is apparently older than human civilisation. Rose herself is now a physicist working on a top-secret government project to figure out where this arm came from, who made it and why.
The story is told in a series of interviews conducted by a mysterious person whose identity we never learn but who has access to the US president and a range of powers that are almost certainly unconstitutional. These interviews with members of the project team are interspersed with journal entries, incident reports and other official-looking government files.
Epistolary is a delicate and difficult form. In the right hands it can have subtle, interesting effects. It can be used to suggest that our protagonist is unreliable; that there is more going on than we can see in the foreground; that there is no one version of objective truth.
Here, it is used to excuse a novel-length infodump. The intended effect is, I think, to place the novel in a “scientific” register: this is the objective truth of what happened on this particular science project. Look, it’s all laid out in transcripts and reports and things. That so much of the info Neuvel dumps is deliberately hidden from the public by the shadowy interviewer heightens the implied difference between this “objective” truth and the information that the fictional public has access to.
Ooh, the government does shady conspiracy theory stuff! Edgy. We’ve never heard that before.
The thing is, the “objective” framing of the novel actually does violence to the conceit of the conspiracy theory: because the government’s various clandestine crimes (which include coercing a doctor to perform life-changing, untested surgery without a patient’s consent, covering up the destruction of half a small town and general emotional manipulation and disregard for personal autonomy) are laid out in such minute detail, there is none of the frisson of the conspiracy theory, the unsettling sense that, for reasons you can’t exactly pin down, the world doesn’t quite add up. Instead, it all feels irredeemably mundane. And it’s irritating that, in a novel that places such emphasis on rational investigation and research, we find out the backstory of the giant arm basically from a guy in a pub. It feels like cheating somehow, a failure of the novel to respect even its own narrow artistic goals. An epistolary novel about a conspiracy theory should challenge our understanding of objective truth, not reinforce it: objective truth does not exist, even in the scientific process. It’s boring and shortsighted to pretend that it does.