Years after waking up dozens of feet below the ground on the palm of what seems to be a mysterious giant metal hand, a top-level physicist leads a team of people to discover the nature of the hand, where it came from and what it portends for humanity.
Sylvain Neuvel is a linguist and translator based in Montreal. He is at work on an R2-D2 replica and his next novel.
Is the discovery of a giant robot buried in the earth a good thing or not? At age eleven, physicist Rose Franklin fell in a hole landing in a giant metal hand surrounded by panels inscribed with unknown text. She becomes determined to find the rest of the body. Assisting with the search are pilots Kara Resnik and Ryan Mitchell, linguist Vincent Couture, geneticist Alyssa Papantoniou and a mysterious interviewer who thinks he knows everything. Neuvel's debut novel, book one of the Themis Files, uses an epistolary format to thrilling effect. The story unfolds with a 'you are there' perspective through official interviews, news reports, and personal log entries. Suspense builds as the global search crosses international borders without the permission or knowledge of foreign governments, kicking off a new cold war. Once joined will the robot be a weapon of mass destruction or a monolithic beacon left to draw attention to the progress of Earth's inhabitants? The are we alone in the Universe' speculation and jaw-dropping epilogue will have readers eager for the sequel. Copyright 2014 Booklist Reviews.
Is the discovery of a giant robot buried in the earth good or not? At 11, Rose Franklin fell in a hole and landed in a giant metal hand surrounded by panels inscribed with unknown text. She grows up to be a physicist and becomes determined to find the rest of the body. Assisting the search are pilots Kara Resnik and Ryan Mitchell, linguist Vincent Couture, geneticist Alyssa Papantoniou, and a mysterious interviewer who thinks he knows everything. Neuvel's first novel, book one of the Themis Files, uses adocumentary format to thrilling effect. The story unfolds from a you-are-there perspective through interviews, news reports, and personal log entries. Suspense builds as the global search crosses international borders without the permission or knowledge of foreign governments, kicking off a new cold war. Once reconstructed, will the robot be a weapon of mass destruction or a monolithic beacon to draw attention to the progress of Earth's inhabitants? The "Are we alone in the universe?" speculation and jaw-dropping epilogue will leave readers eager for the sequel. Copyright 2014 Booklist Reviews.
File No. 003
Interview with Dr. Rose Franklin, Ph.D., Senior Scientist, Enrico Fermi Institute
Location: University of Chicago, Chicago, IL
—How big was the hand?
—6.9 meters, about twenty-three feet; though it seemed much larger for an eleven-year-old.
—What did you do after the incident?
—Nothing. We didn’t talk about it much after that. I went to school every day like any kid my age. No one in my family had ever been to college, so they insisted I keep going to school. I majored in physics.
I know what you’re going to say. I wish I could tell you I went into science because of the hand, but I was always good at it. My parents figured out I had a knack for it early on. I must have been four years old when I got my first science kit for Christmas. One of those electronics kits. You could make a telegraph, or things like that, by squeezing wires into little metal springs. I don’t think I would have done anything different had I listened to my father and stayed home that day.
Anyway, I graduated from college and I kept doing the only thing I knew how to do. I went to school. You should have seen my dad when we learned I was accepted at the University of Chicago. I’ve never seen anyone so proud in my life. He wouldn’t have been any happier had he won a million dollars. They hired me at the U of C after I finished my Ph.D.
—When did you find the hand again?
—I didn’t. I wasn’t looking for it. It took seventeen years, but I guess you could say it found me.
—To the hand? The military took over the site when it was discovered.
—When was that?
—When I fell in. It took about eight hours before the military stepped in. Colonel Hudson—I think that was his name—was put in charge of the project. He was from the area so he knew pretty much everyone. I don’t remember ever meeting him, but those who did had only good things to say about the man.
I read what little was left of his notes—most of it was redacted by the military. In the three years he spent in charge, his main focus had always been figuring out what those carvings meant. The hand itself, which is mostly referred to as “the artifact,” is mentioned in passing only a few times, evidence that whoever built that room must have had a complex enough religious system. I think he had a fairly precise notion of what he wanted this to be.
—What do you think that was?
—I have no idea. Hudson was career military. He wasn’t a physicist. He wasn’t an archaeologist. He had never studied anything resembling anthropology, linguistics, anything that would be remotely useful in this situation. Whatever preconceived notion he had, it must have come from popular culture, watching Indiana Jones or something. Fortunately for him, he had competent people surrounding him. Still, it must have been awkward, being in charge and having no idea what’s going on most of the time.
What’s fascinating is how much effort they put into disproving their own findings. Their first analysis indicated the room was built about three thousand years ago. That made little sense to them, so they tried carbon-dating organic material found on the hand. The tests showed it to be much older, somewhere between five thousand and six thousand years old.
—That was unexpected?
—You could say that. You have to understand that this flies in the face of everything we know about American civilizations. The oldest civilization we’re aware of was located in the Norte Chico region of Peru, and the hand appeared to be about a thousand years older. Even if it weren’t, it’s fairly obvious that no one carried a giant hand from South America all the way to South Dakota, and there were no civilizations as advanced in North America until much, much later.
In the end, Hudson’s team blamed the carbon dating on contamination from surrounding material. After a few years of sporadic research, the site was determined to be twelve hundred years old and classified as a worship temple for some offshoot of Mississippian civilization.
I went through the files a dozen times. There is absolutely nothing, no evidence whatsoever to support that theory, other than the fact that it makes more sense than anything the data would suggest. If I had to guess, I would say that Hudson saw no military interest whatsoever in all this. He probably resented seeing his career slowly wither in an underground research lab and was eager to come up with anything, however preposterous, just to get out of there.
—Get out? Yes. It took a little more than three years, but he finally got his wish. He had a stroke while walking his dog and slipped into a coma. He died a few weeks later.
—What happened to the project after he died?
—Nothing. Nothing happened. The hand and panels collected dust in a warehouse for fourteen years until the project was demilitarized. Then the University of Chicago took over the research with NSA funding and somehow I was put in charge of studying the hand I fell in when I was a child. I don’t really believe in fate, but somehow “small world” doesn’t begin to do this justice.
—Why would the NSA get involved in an archaeological project?
—I asked myself the same question. They fund all kinds of research, but this seems to fall outside their usual fields of interest. Maybe they were interested in the language for cryptology; maybe they had an interest in the material the hand is made of. In any case, they gave us a pretty big budget so I didn’t ask too many questions. I was given a small team to handle the hard science before we handed everything over to the anthropology department. The project was still classified as top secret and, just like my predecessor, I was moved into an underground lab. I believe you’ve read my report, so you know the rest.
—Yes, I have read it. You sent your report after only four months. Some might think it was a little hasty.
—It was a preliminary report, but yes. I don’t think it was premature. OK, maybe a little, but I had made significant discoveries and I didn’t think I could go much further with the data that I had, so why wait? There is enough in that underground room to keep us guessing for several lifetimes. I just don’t think we have the knowledge to get much more out of this without getting more data.
—Who is we?
—Us. Me. You. Mankind. Whatever. There are things in that lab that are just beyond our reach right now.
—Ok, so tell me about what you do understand. Tell me about the panels.
—It’s all in my report. There are sixteen of them, approximately ten feet by thirty-two feet each, less than an inch thick. All sixteen panels were made around the same period, approximately three thousand years ago. We . . .
—If I may. I take it you do not subscribe to the cross-contamination theory?
—As far as I’m concerned, there’s no real reason not to trust the carbon dating. And to be honest, how old these things are is the least of our problems. Did I mention the symbols have been glowing for the last seventeen years, with no apparent power source?
Each wall is made of four panels and has a dozen rows of eighteen to twenty symbols carved into it. Rows are divided into sequences of six or seven symbols. We counted fifteen distinct symbols in total. Most are used several times, some appear only once. Seven of them are curvy, with a dot in the center, seven are made of straight lines, and one is just a dot. They are simple in design but very elegant.
—Had the previous team been able to interpret any of the markings?
—Actually, one of the few sections of Hudson’s report left intact by the military was the linguistic analysis. They had compared the symbols to every known writing system, past or present, but found no interesting correlation. They assumed each sequence of symbols represented a proposition, like an English sentence, but with no frame of reference, they couldn’t even speculate as to their interpretation. Their work was thorough enough and documented at every step. I saw no reason to do the same thing twice and I declined the offer to add a linguist to the team. With nothing to compare this to, there was logically no way to arrive at any sort of meaning.
Perhaps I was biased—because I stumbled onto it—but I felt drawn to the hand. I couldn’t explain it, but every fiber of my being was telling me the hand was the important piece.
—Quite a contrast from your predecessor. So what can you tell me about it?
—Well, it’s absolutely stunning, but I assume you’re not that interested in aesthetics. It measures 22.6 feet in length from the wrist to the tip of the middle finger. It seems to be solid, made of the same metallic material as the wall panels, but it’s at least two thousand years older. It is dark gray, with some bronze overtones, and it has subtle iridescent properties.
The hand is open, fingers close together, slightly bent, as if holding something very precious, or a handful of sand, trying not to spill it. There are grooves where human skin would normally fold, others that seem purely decorative. All are glowing the same bright turquoise, which brings out the iridescence in the metal. The hand looks strong, but . . . sophisticated is the only word that comes to mind. I think it’s a woman’s hand.
—I am more interested in facts at this point. What is this strong but sophisticated hand made of?
—It proved nearly impossible to cut or otherwise alter by conventional means. It took several attempts to remove even a small sample from one of the wall panels. Mass spectrography showed it to be an alloy of several heavy metals, mostly iridium, with about 10 percent iron and smaller concentrations of osmium, ruthenium, and other metals of the platinum group.
—It must be worth its weight in gold?
—It’s funny you should mention that. It doesn’t weigh as much as it should so I’d say it’s worth a lot more than its weight, in anything.
—How much does it weigh?
—Thirty-two metric tons . . . I know, it’s a respectable weight, but it’s inexplicably light given its composition. Iridium is one of the densest elements, arguably the densest, and even with some iron content, the hand should easily weigh ten times as much.
—How did you account for that?
—I didn’t. I still can’t. I couldn’t even speculate as to what type of process could be used to achieve this. In truth, the weight didn’t bother me nearly as much as the sheer amount of iridium I was looking at. Iridium is not only one of the densest things you can find, it’s also one of the rarest.
You see, metals of this group—platinum is one of them—love to bond with iron. That’s what most of the iridium on Earth did millions of years ago when the surface was still molten and, because it’s so heavy, it sunk to the core, thousands of miles deep. What little is left in the Earth’s crust is usually mixed with other metals and it takes a complex chemical process to separate them.
—How rare is it in comparison to other metals?
—It’s rare, very rare. Let’s put it this way, if you were to put together all the pure iridium produced on the entire planet in a year, you’d probably end up with no more than a couple metric tons. That’s about a large suitcaseful. It would take decades, using today’s technology, to scrounge up enough to build all this. It’s just too scarce on Earth and there simply aren’t enough chondrites lying around.
—You lost me.
—Sorry. Meteorites; stony ones. Iridium is so rare in Earth rocks that it is often undetectable. Most of the iridium we mine is extracted from fallen meteorites that didn’t completely burn up in the atmosphere. To build this room—and it seems safe to assume that this is not the only thing they would have built—you’d need to find it where there are a lot more than on the Earth’s surface.
—Journey to the center of the Earth?
—Jules Verne is one way to go. To get this type of metal in massive quantities, you’d either have to extract it thousands of miles deep or be able to mine in space. With all due respect to Mr. Verne, we haven’t come close to mining deep enough. The deepest mines we have would look like potholes next to what you’d need. Space seems much more feasible. There are private companies right now hoping to harvest water and precious minerals in space in the very near future, but all these projects are still in the early planning stages. Nonetheless, if you could harvest meteorites in space, you could get a lot more iridium, a whole lot more.
—What else can you tell me?
—That pretty much sums it up. After a few months of looking at this with every piece of equipment known to man, I felt we were getting nowhere. I knew we were asking the wrong questions, but I didn’t know the right ones. I submitted a preliminary report and asked for a leave of absence.
—Refresh my memory. What was the conclusion of that report?
—We didn’t build this.
—Interesting. What was their reaction?
—That was it?
—Yes. I think they were hoping I wouldn’t come back. I never used the word “alien,” but that’s probably all they took out of my report.
—That is not what you meant?
—Not exactly. There might be a much more down-to-earth explanation, one I just didn’t think of. As a scientist, all I can say is that humans of today do not have the resources, the knowledge, or the technology to build something like this. It’s entirely possible that some ancient civilization’s understanding of metallurgy was better than ours, but there wouldn’t have been any more iridium around, whether it was five thousand, ten thousand, or twenty thousand years ago. So, to answer your question, no, I don’t believe humans built these things. You can draw whatever conclusion you want from that.
I’m not stupid; I knew I was probably putting an end to my career. I certainly annihilated any credibility I had with the NSA, but what was I going to do? Lie?
—What did you do after you submitted your report?
—I went home, to where it all began. I hadn’t gone home in nearly four years, not since my father died.
—Where is home?