It all starts when a girl stumbles upon a giant robotic hand buried in South Dakota.
Sylvain Neuvel kicks off his Themis Files trilogy with the discovery, and it only gets crazier from there. A global hunt to piece together the robot. The realization that it was created by aliens. An alien invasion. A hundred million death toll. Victory.
And then four humans are accidentally transported to an alien world.
Books one and two, titled Sleeping Giants and Waking Gods, deliver a thrilling saga that leaves you on a cliffhanger. With today’s release of Only Human, Neuvel concludes his epic science fiction trilogy in a novel that’s absolutely worth the wait. You’ll have the answers you’ve been dying to know, even if they’re not what you expect.
Paste chatted with Neuvel on the phone last week to discuss writing the final book and creating an alien language (inspired by Farscape). You can read the interview, which has been edited for length and clarity, below.
Paste: Only Human concludes your Themis Files trilogy. Do you have any plans to continue writing books in that universe?
Sylvain Neuvel: Not now; I really wanted to end it. I’ve been in that universe for five years now, and I thought it was time to do something else. Someday, who knows?
Paste: What are you working on next?
Neuvel: There’s nothing I can really share. I have something coming early next year, but it hasn’t been announced yet. It’s a shorter thing. I’m working on something else, which also hasn’t been announced, so I can’t share that either. But there are things on their way.
Paste: Something that was fascinating to me was that you created a new, alien language for Only Human. Can you talk about the process?
Neuvel: I’m a linguist, right? So when I started writing about aliens, I worked really hard not to do it—up until now. [laughs] It felt cliché. But I had to do it in this one.
There’s not that much in the book, but I wrote grammar and lexicon, because I didn’t want the people to speak nonsense. There is a rulebook for that language, so I might do something with it someday.
I recorded two small alien parts for the audiobook. I sent it to them, but I don’t know, it might have been left on the cutting room floor. In theory, I’m in the audiobook. It’s interesting, making weird sounds.
Paste: Was this your first time creating a language?
Neuvel: It was the first. I was curious about doing it, and I’m sure a lot of people have done it way better than I have. But it was fun, and I’m also a bit of a freak and like to research and have everything make sense. At some point, I’d like the reader to be able to go back to the book and translate what they couldn’t understand in the first read.
Paste: Is it based off of existing languages?
Neuvel: It’s based on the opposite of what most people use. The term “polysynthetic” is where you start with a word and mold different pieces to it at the end and make super long words. I wanted the language to be the opposite of that; I wanted it to be compact. I had a particular sound in mind.
I think there’s at least one episode of Farscape where Aeryn Sun speaks their language, and for some reason there’s no translator microbe, so you actually hear it. And I thought it sounded fantastic, like someone speaking backwards. So that was sort of my inspiration for how it would sound.
Paste: Like the other two books, this one has robots and aliens. But you also bring in a lot of other topics that are relevant right now, like racism and xenophobia. Why did you want to incorporate that into this book?
Neuvel: Science fiction, historically, has allowed for social critique. In the first two books, I was more interested in asking more philosophical questions. What does it mean to be human? But when it time came to write Only Human, I was in a darker place.
We’ve been swimming in hate and judgement about people we don’t know, and it’s everywhere, literally everywhere. It got to me to a point where I felt like there was no way I could not talk about it. It seems to be part of human nature. We have a very short memory, too, to be willing to make the same mistakes over and over again that we made in even my dad’s lifetime. So it wasn’t necessarily a choice; I was so deep into those kinds of thoughts. Everything felt heavy, and it transpired in the book. It wasn’t planned.
Paste: What was the timeline for writing Only Human? I’m wondering how it matched up with political events in the world.
Neuvel: I turned it in sometime last year, late summer. So from 2016 to 2017, more or less.
Paste: I know you’re Canadian, and you must be watching with horror everything that’s going on in the United States.
Neuvel: We have no choice. [laughs]
Paste: Did Trump’s election influence your writing at all?
Neuvel: Not so much the election; it’s just everything that came with that. We’ve had it here, too. And Brexit, and now Italy has gone straight to hell in a handbasket. It’s everywhere. It seemed like for a long time, people with that much hate inside them were at least shamed into not talking about it. But they’ve been given the mic for the last couple of years, and it’s been a difficult time.
Paste: How was writing book three different than writing the first two?
Neuvel: Everything was different; I wrote the first book for fun. Then Hollywood happened and the book deal, and my life changed completely. But it took a year and a half for Sleeping Giants to come out, so my totally changed life was exactly the same as it was before. So I had like a year and a half of nothing—no public life, no interviews, no book. I wrote the second one the same way I wrote the first one.
I wrote Only Human after Sleeping Giants came out, so that was a different experience completely. First, we decided it would be a trilogy, which wasn’t super clear from the beginning. That added some pressure; I had to end it in a way that satisfied everyone as well.
About midway through writing Sleeping Giants, I had Waking Gods down to a T; I knew everything about that book. So when it came time to write it, it was more like typing it up than actually writing it. But Only Human wasn’t like that. The story was the same, but the point of view, the spin on it, was different. It wasn’t working the way I wanted it to—it was like pulling teeth. So I scrapped everything and started again with a new perspective. Then it started going well, but everything was different about that book—the struggle, the pressure, the way I was writing it, writing it full time. Which was weird, because my entire writing career has been spent in this universe. I also lost some people along the way, and I needed to create new characters. In Only Human, I’m totally happy with Katherine. She’s probably one of my favorite characters of the whole series now; I love her to death. She was so much fun to write, too.
Paste: She was fun to read! You get a sense of where she’s coming from, but you have no idea what she’s going to do next.
Neuvel: She kind of takes on the role of the Interviewer, but it was difficult to top that guy. But she’s scary as hell in her own way.
Paste: How would you describe Katherine for someone about to read the book?
Neuvel: She’s been through a lot, and she’s super smart. She gets things done, but she has a very different take on how to achieve it. That’s pretty much it.
Paste: Is there anything you’d like to add about the book, the series, anything?
Neuvel: I’m so grateful that people embarked on this journey with me. It’s a bittersweet experience to say good-bye to these characters, at least for now. But the last few years of my life have been the best ever, and I have the readers to thank for that. It’s fantastic; I’m so lucky.