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Only Human
Book Three of the Themis Files
by Sylvain Neuvel
Del Rey; $28; 336 pp.
Published: May 2018

Neuvel concludes his trilogy here, begun with “Sleeping Giants.”

The protagonists at the end of the second book, “Waking Gods” found themselves unexpectedly and instantly swept away to the planet Esat Ekt, the original home of their 20-story high robot, named Themis.

Surprisingly, they are ignored for a great length of time in the electronically dead robot until finally, nearing the end of their ability to survive, the people of Ekt decide to let them free.

Vincent Couture, his daughter Eva, General Eugene Govender, and Dr. Rose Franklin subsequently live on the planet for nine years.

The Ekt are a curious race. Three thousand years ago on our planet, they meddled with our genetics by indulging in a little inter-species hanky-panky, and so now a great many humans are actually related genetically to the Ekt.

The Ekt, as you may recall from the last book, sent thirteen of their robots to Earth and took out a hundred million humans. The aliens thought they were cleansing the earth of their mistake when they showed up with their robots. They felt they should have never messed with us, and so by dispersing a certain gas---they killed humans closely related to them---oh, and in the process, destroyed whole cities (like Madrid) with their robots.

While the four humans reside with the aliens, Earth society completely falls apart and old antagonisms and horrors have reared their ugly heads again, including herding folks into camps based on their genetic index on how closely they are related to the Ekt.

And Earth has the one robot, partially destroyed in the previous confrontation, which they immediately work on repairing. Because, of course, he who controls the robot; has the biggest dick. Sigh…

Little Eva is pretty happy growing up on another planet and gets along with the Ekt. The other three humans are mostly ignored. Given basic needs and housing, they are pretty much on their own. They all learn some of each other’s language (the letter ”L” is impossible for the Ekt to pronounce). The Ekt decide everything by committee, and these committees can take years to come to decisions. Especially the one on what to do with the humans. Dr. Franklin is fascinated by their science, the general just wants to go home, Eva’s fitting in, and Vincent, though interested in the aliens and their technology, fundamentally just wants his little girl to go home and be with her people.

Things fall apart.

The general has cancer, which the aliens apparently can cure easily, but feel no compunction to do so, as that’s just the way things are. Rose, though more and more involved with their science, realizes the Ekt are going to do nothing to save the general. Vincent still wants to go home and Eva’s still happy with her friends.

However, the presence of the humans are a constant reminder of the Ekt failure on Earth and things on the alien planet begin to erode politically, and Eva goes AWOL,  gets associated with a rebel uprising and becomes a person of interest to the rulers of Ekt.  The Earthlings finally figure a way to persuade one of the Ekt to let them take Themis and leave. Eva is nominally willing to return to Earth as she can bring her best friend, a young Ekt male named Ekim who will help pilot Themis (it takes two).

This works…but not too well.

Themis returns to Earth, ending up in Estonia, now controlled by the Russians.  Ekim is killed which infuriates Eva, who really didn’t want to leave Ekt and has no interest in her father’s feelings or decisions and so makes a run for it. Vincent just wants her safe. And Rose as always, is conflicted.

We meet up with the nasty Alyssa Papantoniou again, and are introduced to the unctuous Katherine Lebedev who’s anxious to keep Themis…since the US now has the other robot repaired and named Lapetus. We also are reunited with the mysterious Mr. Burns, but under unhappy circumstances.

The tension is ratcheted up by the escalating hostilities on Earth culminating in a face-off with the two robots at the Chinese-Korean border and hundreds of thousands of troops.

Vincent is manning one robot, and lo and behold, the runaway Eva is in control of the other robot. Will there be détente? Or will someone lose and someone win here?

I’ll bet you’ve grasped by now, that there is a great deal of angst in this book, pretty much a constant from Vincent, who just wants Eva to experience being human on Earth. Eva doesn’t care, and Dr. Rose Franklin is, well, as I’ve said - conflicted. She is constantly weighing the actions of the humans and the Ekt.

And meanwhile Earth is in a hellava mess.

The constant one-note anxiety of Vincent and Rose got wearying after a while, even understanding the motivation and need for it. There’s a great deal of philosophic discussion about what the Ekt were doing, what the humans were doing, how the Ekt saw their interaction with the humans, and how the humans responded.

A lot.

And at the end, I really didn’t have much of a handle on the Ekt, really didn’t have a clear idea of what they looked like (obviously they’re humanoid, if they were able to inter-breed with us). We get glimpses of their society, but only bits and pieces. It’s all rather vague.

The novel is still constructed, as the others were, as a series of excerpted conversations and journal entries from numbered files.

In conclusion, the book ends decently. Just be prepared for a lot of anguish and hand-wringing. ~~ Sue Martin

For other books in the Themis files series click here

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