A note before I begin: I listened to the audiobook of Sylvain Neuvel’s Sleeping Giants, and I highly suggest you do the same. The story is told primarily through interviews and journal entries which are narrated by a cast of 9 different voice actors. Never before have I listened to an audiobook where the storytelling was so engaging. The voice actors know exactly how to pace themselves to build up tension and excitement, and listening to them was an incredibly enjoyable experience.
The story begins with a young girl falling into a crater. After being rescued, a firefighter shows the little girl a picture of herself where she fell–a perfectly square hole with glowing blue symbols etched into the walls–sitting atop an enormous robotic hand. Years later, that same girl is now a renowned physicist at the University of Chicago. A mysterious stranger approaches her with a challenge: find the rest of the robotic body and discover what it does. What follows is a story of scientific revelations and political subterfuge, of testing the limits of humanity and the limits of one’s self. One thing is certain: this robot was created thousands of years ago and uses technology well beyond the scope of what modern humans are capable. If this giant is not from this world, then who created it? And who left it on Earth?
A discovery of this nature has the power to upturn entire belief systems. It has the power to make scientists question everything they assumed as fact. And it has the potential to forever shape the evolution of human technology, if only it could be understood.
But is this exploration of the unknown worth human lives? It is one thing to risk your own life by actively researching and interacting with alien technology, but is it right to risk the lives of strangers? There can be no progress without sacrifice. How many lives is it worth? A few hundred? A thousand? A million? What if there’s no guarantee that at the end, there would be any practical benefit from the discovery? What if the exploration yields untold questions but no answers? Would the loss of life be worth the satisfaction of curiosity? On the other hand, the potential benefits can never be known until an attempt is made. How many lives could be potentially saved by technology that is recovered from the robot? A few hundred? A thousand? A million? Is what is gained from such discoveries worth what is lost? Do the lives that are saved cancel out those that are lost in some sort of cosmic balance of life and death? What is risked by not investigating what is surely alien technology? If there is a vastly more intelligent life-form out there aware of our presence, are we not compelled to learn more about them? Should we halt ongoing funding and research of more practical sciences and redirect those resources into learning about extraplanetary affairs? Who should be the ones making these decisions? The scientists and engineers doing the research? Government officials? Which governments? The people of the world? How could one expect such diverse peoples, cultures, nations, and governments to make unanimous decisions on such a momentous issue?
In Sleeping Giants, the initial discovery of the giant metal hand and subsequent search for the rest of the body takes place in America in a clandestine operation largely conducted by military personnel. Outside of the select few involved with the project, no one is aware of the discoveries that have been unearthed. Outside of the U.S., no one is privy to the knowledge alien technology has been found. As far as the average American is concerned, alien life exists only in the movies.
Is it right for a government to keep such an important discovery secret from its people? Such a revelation would shake the roots of any belief system. It might cause panic, chaos, riots. Would the outcome be worse if the government did keep it a secret, and later the truth came to light? The search for the robotic body pieces soon expands beyond national borders. Still, the governments of those nations are ignorant of the entire investigation. Is scientific exploration worth illegally breaching international borders? Should an attempt be made to involve other governments, since retrieval of the parts is technically theft from their lands? But making other countries aware of what might lie beneath their soil could start a never-ending bureaucratic process of who gets to conduct the research and profit from the discovery and where the body will be kept and which nations are allowed to participate–the parts may be used as political bargaining chips, and the scientific research may be put on hold indefinitely. Does that make it right to withhold such ground-shattering revelations? What if part of the reason the information was being withheld from others is selfish? What if the nation with the knowledge wanted to keep it a secret from others in hopes that it would improve their weaponry or their electronics or their medicine, giving them opportunities to profit greatly while the rest of the world remains in the dark? If the end results are the same–one country has the research and the technology while the rest of the world does not–does it matter if the secret is kept for the sake of scientific progress or personal financial gain?
What if, the collateral damage of discovery was citizens of another country? Is it okay to risk the lives of your citizens, but not those of other nations? Is it okay to risk the life of “others”, but not to intentionally put your own citizens at risk? Do governments have the moral authority to be making these decisions in the first place?
What moral and ethical role do the scientists and engineers have? Is their first responsibility to protect human life or to uncover the truth? Each discovery made during researching alien technology will have untold impact on the world. Are they professionally obligated to use whatever means necessary to extract as much information as they can about the technology and the beings that created it? Are they morally obligated to? If discovering the full capabilities of the alien technology means testing unknown variables on human subjects, who deems what is an acceptable risk and what is not? To not try anything means to never understand or learn more about extraterrestrial beings who have made contact with Earth. To proceed with abandon might mean annihilation.
I realize that this is less a review and more a (very) gratuitous list of questions. As someone heavily involved in STEM, I wish I knew the answers to the questions I’ve posed. I’d like to say that I believe each individual human life is valuable and therefore no loss of life–especially that of unwitting participants–is worth exploring these scientific unknowns. That seems like the noble and humanistic response. The reality is, I believe such loss is worth understanding our place in the universe. Would I feel the same way if we weren’t discussing extraterrestrial life-forms but say, scientific weapons research? No. (But what happens if the alien technology being investigated turns out to be a weapon?) Would I feel the same if the lives being sacrificed were those of my family and friends? Probably not. Does this make me hypocritical? Probably, since whoever dies is the family and friend of somebody. I’m not sure where we draw the line, or who gets to decide where that line is placed. But I am interested to hear your opinion in the matter.