Only Human by Sylvain Neuvel science fiction book reviewsOnly Human by Sylvain Neuvel speculative fiction book reviewsOnly Human by Sylvain Neuvel

The giant robots are back! Only Human (2018) wraps up Sylvain Neuvel’s excellent THEMIS FILES science fiction trilogy with some surprising plot turns. *Expect some spoilers for the first two books, Sleeping Giants and Waking Gods*

At the end of Waking Gods, the robot called Themis was suddenly transported back home to her original planet by remote command of her alien makers, accidentally carrying along four people who happened to be inside of her: Vincent Couture, the only human capable of piloting Themis; his 10 year old daughter Eva; Dr. Rose Franklin, the brilliant and compassionate scientist who first discovered the immense, buried hand of Themis as a child; and General Eugene Govender, commander of the newly formed Earth Defense Corps. After nine years on the planet Esat Ekt, Vincent, Eva and Rose, together with one of the natives of Esat Ekt, commandeer Themis and travel back to Earth.

They land in Estonia, where the Russian government (which controls Estonia again) is delighted to take possession of both the robot and them personally. In Waking Gods, Rose had disabled another of the giant robots that the aliens had sent to Earth, and it turns out that the U.S.A. has been ruthlessly using this other robot, called Lapetus, to take control of many other countries around the globe. (How the U.S. was able to solve the tricky robot piloting issue is disclosed later in the book.) Vincent, a Canadian, is not happy to learn that Canada is now subject to U.S. control. The Russians intend to use Themis, Vincent, Eva and Rose to combat the U.S. and Lapetus. It’s an understandable strategy, though their methodology for convincing their “guests” to go along with the plan ― personified by the veiled threats of Katherine Lebedev, a major in Russia’s intelligence agency who is assigned as the prisoners’ handler ― is decidedly unpleasant.

Meanwhile, in a panicked overreaction to the events that occurred in Waking Gods, most countries around the globe have created internment camps for people whose genetic makeup includes more than a certain percentage of alien DNA … and even executing those with the highest levels. Our world is devolving into chaos and governmental oppression, with rampant mistrust. It’s not a happy or peaceful world to which Rose, Vincent and Eva have returned.

Neuvel includes a good amount of political and social commentary in Only Human. It occasionally gets a little clunky, but there are some incisive if rather pessimistic insights into human nature and our behavior when stressed … and the massive alien-caused deaths in Waking Gods have led to unprecedented levels of worldwide fear and uncertainty.

Only Human is a dual timeline novel: the current timeline describes what occurs after Rose, Vincent and Eva return to Earth, interspersed with flashback chapters that follow their lives during their nine years on Esat Ekt. I was delighted to see Sylvain Neuvel take on the challenge of creating an alien culture but, partly because Neuvel is still following the same file-based narrative structure as the first two books, we only get a limited look at the aliens’ world and its people. It’s mostly seen indirectly, through the discussions and journals of the four humans who are involuntarily being held there. The aliens’ world of Esat Ekt is, in many ways, a familiar one despite their vast technological superiority and unswerving dedication to non-interference with other cultures. But like humans, they also have political conspiring, large portions of the population who are dispossessed because of their race … and even soup kitchens. I would have liked to have sensed more alien-ness in their society, but it was interesting to compare and contrast the flaws in their world with those in ours.

Katherine Lebedev, the military officer in charge of Rose, Vincent and Eva during their time in Russia, is a quirky combination of threats and faux-friendly chirpiness who never quite feels real. As a handler, she was a distinctly unsatisfactory replacement for the nameless handler who was such an impressively dominant force in Sleeping Giants. However, the relationship between Vincent and his now nineteen year old daughter Eva makes up for this with its painful realism. Neuvel delves into the chaotic web of love, misunderstanding, anger and concern that can make up a relationship between parents and children … especially rebellious teenagers.

Only Human is an enjoyable, thoughtfully written conclusion to the THEMIS FILES trilogy. It’s one of my favorite recent science fiction series, deftly combining hard science with interesting characters and social commentary, not to mention the excitement of giant robot deathmatches. Overall I give it an enthusiastic recommendation!

Publication date: May 1, 2018. 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?


  • Tadiana Jones

    TADIANA JONES, on our staff since July 2015, is an intellectual property lawyer with a BA in English. She inherited her love of classic and hard SF from her father and her love of fantasy and fairy tales from her mother. She lives with her husband and four children in a small town near the mountains in Utah. Tadiana juggles her career, her family, and her love for reading, travel and art, only occasionally dropping balls. She likes complex and layered stories and characters with hidden depths. Favorite authors include Lois McMaster Bujold, Brandon Sanderson, Robin McKinley, Connie Willis, Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, Megan Whalen Turner, Patricia McKillip, Mary Stewart, Ilona Andrews, and Susanna Clarke.

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