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How author Sylvain Neuvel finds the human heart in his giant robot thrillers

His next novel Only Human hits stores next year

Image: Del Rey / Penguin Random House

Sylvain Neuvel imagined piloting a giant robot when he was growing up. And while the dream of stepping into the cockpit of a building-sized mech may still be out of reach, he’s done the next best thing: written a book series about giant, alien robots called The Themis Files, which is set to conclude next year with Only Human.

The series is set in a world that — initially — is more or less like ours, until a scientist named Rose Franklin discovers a giant, glowing metal hand buried deep underground in the first installment of the series, Sleeping Giants. The book and its sequel, Waking Gods is told through a series of documents, interviews, and reports, rather than a straightforward narrative. It’s a style similar to stories like World War Z or Robopocalypse, and allows Neuvel to tell the story on a global scale, showing off the shockwaves of events as they ripple out across the world.

One giant robot, two books, and a generous helping of sci-fi action later, and Neuvel is bringing the trilogy to a close with Only Human, which picks up after a cliffhanger that left many of the story’s main characters stranded somewhere that isn’t Earth.

We recently had the chance to chat a bit with Neuvel over email about The Themis Files series, and we have an exclusive look at the cover for the final book in the trilogy, Only Human.

Image: Del Rey / Penguin Random House

Giant robots have always been a huge part of pop culture things like Voltron, Power Rangers, Pacific Rim, and more why focus on that for the series?

I like toys, anime. I really like toys. I grew up watching Japanese shows like Grendizer, Mazinger Z, Voltron, Neon Genesis Evangelion. I played with the toys, imagined myself piloting these giant machines. Big robots are about as impractical as it gets, but they are badass. That said, I never felt like this series was about giant robots, or aliens for that matter. To me, it’s always been the story of a handful of people whose lives are thrown upside down by a remarkable discovery. It’s about human nature, what it means to be you. It’s about us, not them.

The Themis Files series relies a lot on a non-traditional narrative through the use of documents and interviews. What motivated that format?

I’ve played with different ideas when I started writing Sleeping Giants, but I knew from the start I was going to use an epistolary format. I’ve always been a fan of non-traditional narratives. When I came up with the character of the interviewer, it all clicked into place. He was not only one of the most important characters, but also the glue that would hold everything together. I could write almost the entire book as dialogue, which is, by far, my favorite thing to write. I enjoy getting to know the characters like I would in real life, by listening to them. I also want to feel like I’m more than a mere observer when I read a book. I want to participate. I want some things to be left unsaid, so I can figure them out on my own. I want the author of the book I’m reading to trust me, to believe in my ability to piece things together and fill in gaps. That’s what I like, and that’s what I wanted for my readers.

The entire Themis Files feels very cinematic. The huge set piece battles, multiple viewpoints, and plotting feels like it would translate well to other mediums. Is that something in the works?

This whole thing actually started with Hollywood. The movie rights sold to a major studio before I even had a publisher. There is a script by David Koepp (Spider-Man, Jurassic Park, Mission Impossible, etc.). There’s been some progress on that front, but you never really know. Fingers crossed. I usually see things before I write them. I start each book with a handful of scenes that speak to me visually, then I build the plot around that. I think the series would translate well into just about any visual medium. A graphic novel would also be good. Maybe a video game? Travel the world looking for giant body parts, then assemble your robot and beat the hell out of 20-story-tall bad guys. I’d play that game…

Only Human looks to be jumping ahead in time pretty significantly from the ending of the last book. Is there a reason for that jump?

Indeed there is. There’s a nine-year gap between the end of Waking Gods and the beginning of Only Human the same amount of time that went by between the first and second books. There are a couple reasons for the jumps. First, I wanted the Themis Files to feel real — as real as a giant robot story can, anyway — and that meant my characters had to have some kind of ordinary existence beyond the events of the books. I didn’t want horrible things to happen every time they step outside the house. Making first contact with an alien civilization, at least to me, also felt like something that wouldn’t happen over a weekend. It might even be a multi-generational endeavor. Perhaps most importantly, the events of Waking Gods are traumatic, to say the least, and that kind of trauma has long-term effects. It’s been 16 years since 9/11 and we’re still feeling it, perhaps more so than we did 10 years ago. That’s what I wanted to show with Only Human: how we’d react to something this big, where it would take us as a species.

Is Only Human the end of the series? Will you be writing further books in The Themis Files or exploring the world you've created from other directions?

Time will tell. This is the end of a trilogy. Yes, that means there’s no cliffhanger at the end of this one. But I love these characters and the universe they live in, and I can’t imagine not wanting to revisit that world at some point. I have some ideas about, as you say, exploring it from other directions. I have a couple projects in the works. Then, we’ll see…