You Break It, You Buy It: Only Human by Sylvain Neuvel

According to Only Human’s About the Author, Sylvain Neuvel has counted journalism, soil decontamination, furniture sales, translation and linguistics among his many and various vocations—and that’s not to mention his hobbies, which he happily admits have seen him tinkering in this and dabbling in that. In The Themis Files so far, he’s brought together most, if not all, of his areas of expertise, demonstrating a range that has certainly kept readers of said series on their feet. It was an etymological mystery one moment, an incredible mêlée of mechs the next, and after that? Why, that’s when the aliens invaded.

The Ekt came to Earth—to Terra, in their tongue—to tidy up, in truth. Thousands of years previously they had intervened in the evolution of our species, you see; then, with their fundamentally divine doings done, they installed certain representatives, purportedly to keep an eye on the prize. Back on their home planet, however, the policies that led the Ekt to play pachinko with people were repealed, and a new day of non-interference dawned.

The alien agents abandoned on Earth were considered collateral damage. They had orders not to breed with the native population in any case. But, left to their own devices for so long, some of them did just that. Generation after generation passed in this fashion, irreversibly polluting the human gene pool in the process. Alas, the Ekt didn’t know that when they finally came back to clean up the mess they’d made.

The chemical weapon they deployed in Waking Gods following the activation of one of their buried behemoths in Sleeping Giants was intended to target the direct descendants of their runaway representatives. Instead, it killed millions, seemingly indiscriminately, and scared the sense out of everyone else, as Rose Franklin bemoans upon her return to an Earth transformed by terror:

“We’ve lost our collective mind! Scientists are ignoring their own findings. People are denying even the most basic […] facts because it makes them feel better about hurting each other. Do you realise how horrifying that is? We’re talking about human beings making a conscious effort, going out of their way, to be ignorant. Wilfully stupid. They’re proud of it. They take pride in their idiocy. There’s not even an attempt to rationalise things anymore. Muslims are bad because they are, that’s all. Why would you need a reason? It’s one thing to let your child go blind because you read on Facebook that the measles vaccine would make him autistic, it’s another to ship him off to a work camp because he inherited his Grandmother’s genes instead of Grandpa’s. Our entire race is trying to lobotomise itself. It’s as moronic and repulsive as someone cutting off their own legs.”

In the nine years since the Ekt attacked our planet, humanity has gone to hell in a hell of a hurry. Angry and afraid, and with no aliens to hit back at—they left Earth the second they realised what horrors they’d wrought—we have turned upon one another. It may be that everyone has a little alien DNA in them these days, but those with the most have been rounded up and placed in glorified pens like pigs on the morning of their slaughter.

And that’s just what “the good guys” have been doing. With the only remaining robot “red, white and blue through and through,” America has been “spreading freedom, one city at a time.” And if said cities aren’t fans of freedom? Well, let’s just say Lapetus has a particularly persuasive energy weapon.

All this is as much of a shock to Rose and Vincent and Eva—the little found family at the heart of The Themis Files—as it is to us at the outset of Only Human. They’ve been living in ignorance as political prisoners on Esat Ekt for damn near a decade, and their homecoming isn’t exactly happy either. Immediately after staging a daring escape from a planet in a distant galaxy, they and their stolen robot are scooped up by Russia’s Main Intelligence Agency, confined to separate cells, and subjected to days of interrogation.

Their interviewer, one Katherine Lebedev, is a real charmer: a chatty Cathy whose perverse approach is to pretend she’s everyone’s friend. She just wants what’s best for our homesick heroes, she says—again and again; she’d gladly just cut them loose to do what they want, if it were up to her; but it isn’t, alas, and if she doesn’t deliver the information her bosses are interested in, they’ll send in someone substantially less pleasant: someone willing to use the tools associated with their terrible trade.

Katherine is a grating addition to the core cast of Neuvel’s novels, but given her role in the whole, I gave her irritating characterisation the benefit of the doubt in the beginning. Unfortunately, she might be the most memorable thing about Only Human. Though the author treats to us to any number of interminable diary entries exploring our protagonists’ time on Esat Ekt, and several tedious transcripts starring the aforementioned freedom-spreading Americans, no one of the newcomers is of note; nor, indeed, are the antics of Rose and her vaguely-related rabble. They, for their part, spend the vast majority of Only Human waiting, exasperatingly passively, for something to happen, and as readers, we do too.

It’s a case of too little, too late when the plot eventually picks up the pace, though I will say that the last act is positively action-packed in light of the book’s sluggish start. Several of the characters we’ve come to care about over the course of the series so far come full circle by way of a lovably clumsy climactic battle; the state of the world is resolved, albeit rather cheaply; and there’s a momentarily impactful sacrifice—undermined, admittedly, by a last-minute twist that robs Only Human of what little emotional weight it wields.

Rich in mystery and spoiled for spectacular action, The Themis Files have been fun from word one. Only Human simply isn’t, in no small part because the questions we had have been answered and the robots in the ring this round take far too long to fight. What we’re left with is an overlong and largely leaden reminder of better times that brings an initially thrilling and intermittently chilling series to a so-so close. A jack of all trades its author may be, but here at the culmination of his trilogy—when it matters most, you might say—Neuvel is master of none.

Only Human is available from Del Rey in the US and from Penguin in the UK.

Niall Alexander is an extra-curricular English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative ScotsmanStrange Horizons, and Tor.com. He lives with about a bazillion books, his better half and a certain sleekit wee beastie in the central belt of bonnie Scotland.

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