Book Review: Only Human
Only Human was one of my most highly-anticipated novels of 2018. I found both Sleeping Giants and Waking Gods to be captivating, and I had high hopes that Neuvel would finish the trilogy in style. Final verdict? Mixed, but positive overall.
Only Human is told in both the present, nearly a decade after Themis disappeared with Vincent, Rose, the general and Eva, and in flashback, covering their time on the alien world. In the present, Earth is in the process of tearing itself apart in its paranoia. The United States, now in possession of Lapetus, has taken to offering "protection" wherever it wants. All around the world, countries round up everyone who has alien DNA and categorize them by how much. The most alien? Well, there are camps for them (and, in some places, extermination). Rose, Vincent, and Eva return to find a world in upheaval, and each of them sets about trying to make it better in their own way.
The action of Only Human is fairly limited in scope, and its pacing suffers a bit from constant flashbacks to Vincent and Rose on the alien world where they spent nine years. I'm not 100% convinced that so much of the book needed to be in flashback, when the philosophical and moral dilemmas of modern-day Earth were much more immediate and arresting (not to mention timely, given our current political environment -- Neuvel has a lot of poignant passages in here about the dangers of nationalism and othering people who are different).
That said, the characters are still as strong as ever. Vincent, in particular, shines in this book as he struggles with being a single dad and the loss of his wife. The tension between him is Eva is so not-normal, given their circumstances, and yet also such a normal parent/teenager dynamic at the same time. This gives the story a solid and satisfying emotional core, which culminates in a letter from Kara that had me sniffling.
Rose is still fascinating too, especially after she fails to save the general, returns to Earth and begins encountering old faces (including Alyssa!). Rose has the unique position of having no alien DNA, which in the new order on Earth is now extremely important and opens a lot of doors for her. She's determined to use the knowledge she brought back for good, and she's determined to set right as much as she can; she feels like she is to blame for all the bad that's happened since she fell into the hand.
The aliens provide an interesting dynamic, even if I do think there was too much flashback. After a screw-up, they've adopted a twisted version of Star Trek's Prime Directive. But in the process, they've essentially created a concentration camp of their own: more comfortable, admittedly, but still a prison where they keep those of mixed DNA and let them slowly die out. It just goes to show that the road to hell can be paved with good intentions, a theme that runs throughout the novel.
Of all the books' conclusions, the epistolary format works the best here, where it's entirely reasonable for Vincent and Eva's confrontation to be recorded. However, this book also has the most deus ex machina ending of the three, and it feels weaker as a result. I'm not sure I'm 100% satisfied with it.
Because of that, I don't think I can grade this higher than the other two. Waking Gods is my favorite of the three. But don't get me wrong - this is still a conclusion well worth reading. I just wish we had been able to solve our own problems instead of relying on outside assistance.