Prior to the release of Only Human, the final entry in the Themis Files trilogy by Sylvain Neuvel, I did a little research. I wanted to see how many Sci-Fi titles include the word human. It seemed like there should be a fair few, since most SF is painstakingly concerned with the human condition, but I couldn’t find that many. Human isn’t a terribly interesting word when you could go with things like robot or mars or horrendous space kablooie. Among the only titles I did recall or discover was Theodore Sturgeon’s classic More Than Human. It’s always less or more: even in books without indicative titles, nobody is super jazzed to talk about humans as they are.
Only Human, as the title implies, isn’t thrilled about us either. In this third installment, human nature has caught up to scientific progress and made a mess of things. But perhaps it would be helpful to remind you what things are afoot.
Recap (spoilers, obviously): Themis, the robot painstakingly assembled and awoken in book one, Sleeping Giants, had some dramatic adventures in book two, Waking Gods. The aliens who created her returned and tried to scrub their “interference” from humanity, since they believe in the self-determination of species (anyone familiar with Star Trek will understand when I say it’s essentially the Prime Directive). However, in attempting to remove the results of genetic interference—aka, interbreeding between their species and ours—they misjudge the extent to which our DNA has mingled and end up killing millions and millions of people. Through scientific cleverness and the judicious use of force (read: Themis fights another robot), they persuade the aliens to leave.
Unfortunately, the aliens take Themis when they go. With all our favorite characters stuck inside.
So now it’s nine years later, and linguist Vincent, his daughter Eva, and physicist Rose have returned with Themis, along with a single alien named Ekim. They have left under dramatic circumstances, and they return to dire ones. Earth, it seems, has not fared well in the interim. In fact, everything has pretty much gone straight to hell.
The UN and the fictitious Earth Defense Council have failed. In an anti-Watchmen move, humanity didn’t band together once they knew there were aliens. They panicked and reacted with violence, which made things worse, and then when the aliens disappeared the collective “fight or flight” response didn’t switch off. Because the aliens might come back. Because action feels better than admitting ignorance. Because—Neuvel wonders—it’s human nature?
Early on, a character describes human nature as wanting to punch someone who just punched you. Not aggression, necessarily; just this unrestrained ability to react with a combination of fear and aggression. Humanity is good at reaction. Action, less so. This is one of the most insightful comments I’ve heard in a long while, and it encapsulates Only Human fairly well. No longer optimistic, but not quite ready to despair, the reality dogs each character: human nature is petty, venal, and insecure. How can you save a species so capable of greatness, yet so mired in its baser instincts?
These books are one of the clearest, most devastating and yet most subtle indictments of the Trump era that I’ve seen. The first book was published and clearly also written in a time of guarded optimism, and the second follows suit. But I’m going to guess that this third book was primarily written—and definitely finished—after the 2016 election. Because it’s brutally, unflinchingly pessimistic about how humans and governments would act. Gone is the scientific hope for solutions; now we use DNA tests to put the “wrong sort” of people in labor and execution camps. Gone is the collaboration of academic inquiry, military effort, and bureaucratic efficiency. Now, America has annexed Canada, dissolved democracy, and enforced its fascist rule over everyone that doesn’t have a nuclear arsenal capable of promising mutually assured destruction. It’s the Cold War Part II.
Obviously I’m inferring some things about Neuvel’s politics, but it’s really not much of a leap if you’ve read the books. I had to put this one down several times; it was just too bleak. Not just in its take on earth politics, but also on Ekt politics. The hyper-evolved, technologically advanced aliens are in just as much of a political maelstrom as we are, and fall victim to many of the same prejudices and fears. Xenophobia, terrorism, and bigotry are just as rampant. Even fake news makes an appearance, a bold-faced lie that nonetheless embroils Eva, Vincent, and Rose in Ekt conflict while as they are still trying to untangle Terran issues. Namely, a very familiar tension with Russia, which makes this a timely book. The inclusion of a Chinese/Russian/North Korean/South Korean/American drama plays out with some nail-biting tension due to its real-life parallels as well.
All of this seems incredibly complicated, but it’s actually quite straightforward in presentation. Neuvel does an excellent job parceling out information so as to maintain a sense of mystery and discovery without being obscure. He also has a knack for providing context without reams and reams of infodumps. Even the philosophizing, which might have been preachy or dull, is full of emotional resonance and urgency, like his tragic reflection on the ills of the Prime Directive.
The dialogue (which comprises 99% of the book, as this is all “found” documents of conversations and personal logs) is as snappy as ever. These books are basically Aaron Sorkin doing sci-fi. I would love to see them adapted, actually, because they don’t just walk the line between awesome sci-fi action and complex politics and intimate character development, they strut it. And even though Neuvel is mostly reflecting on humanity, he also gives a fairly complete and accurate picture of an alien civilization. Despite being all dialogue, this is a highly evocative and visual book. So much so that I also had to put it down before the epilogue, because despite the bleakness, I was very reluctant to have it end.
The epilogue seems so entirely out of character for one of our exhausted heroes that it’s a clear authorial wish-fulfillment scenario. I don’t doubt the author has justifications but I did have to roll my eyes a tiny bit. Other than that, though, I found the conclusion both fitting and satisfying, not easy in a book that took such a grim turn. I think there is a chance that others will criticize the rather deus ex machina solution to a large issue, but I actually found it appropriate and surprisingly complex. No great force saves humanity. Neuvel is clear that such a thing does not actually exist. A series of compromises and sleights-of-hand just give us another chance to save ourselves—or not.
Only Human will be released on May 1.