Having thoroughly enjoyed the first two instalments in Sylvain Neuvel’s Themis Files series (Sleeping Giants and Waking Gods), I was excited to read Only Human – the third and final instalment in the trilogy. I will say right now that you absolutely must read these novels in order – they don’t work as standalone novels. As such, this review might be a little shorter than it might otherwise have been in order to avoid spoilers for the previous novels.
We always thought the biggest threat to humanity would come from the outside.
We were wrong.
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 Defence 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. 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?
Only Human is set some ten years after the events of Waking Gods – ten years which Rose has spent on an alien planet. For the scientist in her, it’s the perfect opportunity to learn and discover, and yet she is keen to return home, as is the rest of her party. Yet when they do get home, they find the world to be markedly different to the one that they left behind. The events of Waking Gods have taken their toll, and caused some rather drastic measures to be brought into force. This includes the domination of a superpower, with other nations largely powerless to stand in their way.
I think that this novel has a lot to say about human nature, particularly our predilection for destruction and our prejudices – be that by race, religion, or on other criteria. The attempt at domination also highlights the willingness of some to (ab)use technology, whatever its source. While this might seem like an increasingly common theme at the moment given developments in AI, I thought that it was well handled in this novel. The return of Rose et al brings events to a head, although the reader wonders how much of a difference these few people can make, despite their extraordinary experiences to date. It makes for a fascinating read, and I read through desperate to know whether things could be fixed.
Structurally, the novel follows the same format as Sleeping Giants and Waking Gods, using a combination of interviews, journals, official reports etc. to form the story. It’s a format that works brilliantly, and the whole series has been one that I’ve read quickly as “one more chapter” very quickly becomes two or three. I particularly liked the entries relating to the time spent on Esat Ekt – Neuvel has created a fascinating culture on his alien planet, and I loved hearing about how they lived, their politics, and society. The language is a barrier to begin with, but they are soon able to communicate to some degree, and I thought that these entries provided a nice backdrop to events on Earth.
Only Human brings the Themis Files series to a satisfying conclusion, answering all of those little questions outstanding from the first two novels. I enjoyed discovering more about the robots, particularly where they are from and who made them. Definitely worth a read if you enjoyed Sleeping Giants and Waking Gods.