In Ask a Prophet, we probe the brains of sci-fi, fantasy, and speculative fiction writers. This week, we speak with Sylvain Neuvel about aliens, translating books to movies, Battlestar Galactica, and more.
Where did the idea for Sleeping Giants come from?
My son was really young and I asked him if he wanted me to build him a toy robot. Instead of saying “Yes” like I thought he would, he said, “What kind? How? It needs a backstory!” I thought, what would it be like if it happened for real?
If you look up at the sky and see a bunch of stars and think there could be planets around any of those — it’s just a natural question to ask what else is out there. I always try to find new and interesting questions to explore. When I was younger, I made a list of three things I wanted to do with my life: have children, get a degree, and go to space.
And I’ve always liked epistolary novels. One of the first that blew my mind was Les Liaisons Dangereuses. I thought about switching from one chapter to the next, but that seemed incoherent. That’s how I got the idea for the interviewer.
Did you have to do much research for the scientific aspects of the story?
From a science perspective, I had to do a lot of research. There’s a lot of fantastic things to explore. But mostly, I look up at the sky at night — I get emails tracking space stations. It stirs up the imagination. I sort of get a little crazy with science. Pretty much every time Rose opens her mouth in the book, I read a bunch of papers so I know what she’s talking about.
What are some of your influences?
Bookwise, proably Michael Crichton. I read most of his books when I was a teen and in my early 20s — which are very formative years. But I’m a big movie and TV guy. I love Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It’s so well done. It’s a movie about meeting aliens but it’s really a movie about us. Contact had a similar approach. I watch a lot of TV too, I miss Battlestar Galactica so much. I visualize everything I write, and the tone and color palate are definitely inspired by Battlestar Galactica.
And your book already had a movie deal before it even came out, right? It’s been optioned by Sony with David Koepp writing the script?
I got a great review in Kirkus and then started getting calls from movie producers. Emails, really — but it sounds better to say calls. Before I write a chapter, I usually imagine the scene I want to write about in detail, with camera angles and everything. I’m hoping what’s on the page will translate. Most of the book is interview format. You could do part of it the way the first season of True Detective did.
How do you think we would react if we really did make contact with aliens?
We tend to be a little petty when we’re scared — there could be some fighting. Sadly, I think the way I depict the world reacting in my book is something that would happen.
What excites you most about the future of sci-fi?
I’m curious to see where it’s going to go, there are so many things happening right now from a scientific and technical perspective. You can write something that sounds far-fetched today that isn’t by the time the book is published.
We could have something that resembles A.I. in the next week. You have to push boundaries and so you don’t look like a fool when what you wrote about was invented the month before. You have to be really creative to stay ahead.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.