Rather than provide free labor for the monstrous algorithmic beasts of Amazon and the like, I’ve decided to write reviews on my own blog instead. This has the added bonus that my negative reviews won’t dissuade customers from trying something themselves and hampering the creator’s efforts to eat.
If 2018 was the 20th anniversary of the release of the maybe-classic-maybe-not Playstation title Xenogears from the was-classic-but-is-now-just-sad Japanese developer Square, then 2019, by the inscrutable mysteries of the Mayan calendar, is the 20th anniversary of when I played it as a twelve year old boy on summer vacation. It’s been on my mind a lot lately.
The vast majority of humanity is fortunate enough not to have suffered through the 80 odd hours of tedious random battles, terrible platforming, jarring difficulty spikes, and a borderline gibberish plot told through endless dialogue boxes with a text scroll speed slower than continental drift. The game is also notoriously unfinished, with the back half of the plot essentially unfolding as Wikipedia summary with visual aids.
For the few who survived the experience, it was. . .rather quite revelatory. Xenogears is an immense sci-fi saga that touches on religion, politics, family, technology, love, memory, grief, and how we choose to live when our love ones are torn away from us. It’s also a very anime story where a man accidentally kills his dearest friends with a giant robot and at the end saves the world by hopping in that same robot and killing “God”—who is not really God (surprise!) but a super-advanced interplanetary weapon system that assembles itself out of human components.
Also this man (our protagonist): suffers from a split personality disorder; has a suppressed personality who is a superpowered murderous monster; has lived many past lives over thousands of years; is pursued by a masked villain who is the disembodied evil spirit of one of those past lives; is also pursued by a masked mentor who is secretly his father, whose body is also host to the aforementioned disembodied evil spirit of one of his past lives; and has a girlfriend who is slightly less complicated than himself, but only just. It is bonkers! Just bonkers. But there’s also nothing else quite its scope, themes, style, and heart. If you make it to the end of Xenogears, you will never, ever forget it, and you will never find anything remotely close to the experience.
But, fool that I am, sometimes I try. That’s how I spent a bleak spring Saturday at a tire dealership reading through Sleeping Giants, a 2016 sci-fi novel by Sylvain Neuvel, whose author bio reads like character notes for a Syfy made-for-television movie. I discovered the book while vainly mining the internet for even a glint of something that might satisfy my longing for something like Xenogears, a desire impossible for even the original object to sate (such is nostalgia’s curse). It had vague promise: the various parts of a massive humanoid robot are discovered buried deep underground all over the Earth. These parts are found to be in the neighborhood of three thousand years old and could have only been built by a civilization from another planet. How very exciting!
Well, yes, conceptually. Sleeping Giants is a modernist epistolary novel, told in the main through interview transcripts with a few journal entries and other novelties (like an NRO intelligence report) thrown in for good measure. As all the advertising and reviews are just bursting to tell you, it is much like World War Z in that regard. Unlike World War Z, the format does nothing for the novel. Whereas Max Brooks’ book uses the interview format to tell a series of gripping short stories about not just zombies but the richness and complexity of global society and world nations’ idiosyncratic responses to catastrophe, much of Sleeping Gods centers on the relationships and emotional states of a handful of core characters who have all the depth and texture of a flattened cereal box. The novel concerns itself largely with these watery extracts of cable television cliches, and the robot, with all its mystery and grandeur and wonder and world-shattering implications, largely sits in the background. We are once or twice told people in the world are amazed by it, but this is really a footnote.
Perhaps this is the fault of the choice of protagonist. The primary driver of the story is an unnamed man of unnamed origin of unknown but comically immense financial and political capital. He is a puppet master. He’s not heartless, but he is not the thoughtful longform journalist the the heart of World War Z. His concern is managing the egos of his crack team of maverick scientists and hotshot pilots (the team is always a crack team; they are the crackest), not telling a story to an audience. The nameless demigod gets to do things like tell people their own darkest secret and remind his discussion partners he can have them killed and replaced at his merest whim. If I were writing a parody, this is the sort of figure I would want front and center.
Sleeping Gods, however, is not a parody. It is brutally self-serious for a mashup of Pacific Rim and The Iron Giant stabled together with bits taken from corny genre touchstones like Fringe or Battlestar Galactica (can you guess the name of the book’s hotshot female pilot? If you’ve seen BSG, I bet you can). In fact, the comparison with BSG is apt. The show sunk to its absolute lowest levels when it became an interminable character drama of unlikeable figures who were neither heroic nor depraved enough to care for. That is Sleeping Gods in a nutshell: a book you want to be about what’s on the cover but is instead about the inner lives of characters you want to defenestrate from a space station.
I am not averse to genre fiction being about characters and not the genre. One of my favorite novels is Philip K. Dick’s VALIS, an intense study of the intersection of addiction, mental health, and belief. The worst part of that book is the short span of time when things actually do happen and we’re momentarily robbed of Horselover Fat’s inner chaos. I’m not critical of Sleeping Gods for foregrounding characters rather than all the things any sane person would have bought the book for. I’m critical that the characters are dull, lifeless tropes, and all the hints of a more exciting story taking place elsewhere only ever remain hints. I wanted to read the story that this story is about.
There’s other minor quibbles, like the mandatory line about how the discovery of aliens means we’ll have to throw out everything we know about religion—a line only taken seriously by the religiously illiterate, but taken very seriously indeed by them. There’s also the continuing cosmic mystery of why purported intellectually highbrow outlets like NPR lavish praise on forgettable and uninspired novels like this. But these are quibbles.
I don’t expect anything to rival Xenogears. Even the game’s creator, Tetsuya Takahashi, has been himself unable to replicate what made his first game so distinct, and—in all fairness—playing the game in 2019 as a grown man with a family is not at all an attractive idea. The game is extraordinarily tedious to play, and that’s saying something for videogames—a medium designed from the ground up to callously delete your free time. It’s for that reason I keep an eye out for books that might go some ways in scratching the itch certain videogames gave me, fungal-like, when I was a child in the 90s.
It’s unfair and senseless to complain Sleeping Gods does not live up to that expectation, as it does not in any way even remotely suggest it wants to. However, that’s not the issue. The issue is that Sleeping Gods doesn’t live up to the promise implicit in its premise, choosing instead to ride the marketplace coattails of World War Z to deliver an unremarkable television drama with giant robots and global conspiracies as mise-en-scene (no, I will not look up the code for an accented e). There are two more books in the series, but after the first, I cannot imagine dragging myself over that finish line. It’d be less agonizing to play through Xenogears again, and, again, that’s saying something.