The Humans by Matt Haig (Canongate – 9 May, 2013)
The Humans takes a look at humanity from the perspective of an outsider—literally someone from outside our galaxy. This book is a manifesto of sorts that wears its intention very transparently on its sleeve, or at least in its preface. The alien narrator, addressing his fellow Vonnadorians, makes the following plea:
And let us consider this: what if there actually is a meaning to human life? And what if—humour me—life on earth is something not just to fear and ridicule but also cherish? What then?
So it’s not going to be War of the Worlds. (That's a relief.) There is going to be one Vonnadorian on our side at least, even if the rest want to annihilate us.
One night Professor Andrew Martin, in a flash of brilliance, proves the hitherto unverifiable Riemann Hypothesis. (Essentially he discovers the formula that predicts the distribution of prime numbers.) The Vonnadorians have been keeping an eye on his calculations from across the universe and decide that they cannot allow this dangerous information to be disseminated. Andrew Martin is abducted and killed and a Vonnadorian assumes his form and embarks on a mission to identify and eliminate anyone else who might have known about this discovery. His primary targets—Andrew Martin’s wife and teenaged son, Gulliver.
The alien is unprepared for human life. He has done the reading but the reality is very different to anything he could have imagined. At first he is nauseated by the physical appearance of the humans:
Their faces alone contain all manner of hideous curiosities. A protuberant central nose, thin-skinned lips, primitive external auditory organs known as ‘ears’, tiny eyes and unfathomably pointless eyebrows…
It is an ambitious project—in fact it sounds like a writing exercise set to trip up hapless young creative writing students: write a story from the perspective of an alien, experiencing our world for the very first time. The first few chapters in particular are a minefield of writerly hazards—but Matt Haig skirts the dangers with aplomb, going to into as much detail as required to maintain the suspension of disbelief without getting bogged down in unnecessary minutiae.
Though he has been warned against it, the alien becomes attached to humanity—to Andrew Martin’s family in particular—and is reluctant to kill them as ordered. He has been taught that humans are an arrogant species, defined by violence and greed but he begins to see another side to humanity:
They are more complicated than we first thought, he reports back. They are sometimes violent, but more often care about each other. There is more goodness in them than anything else, I am convinced of it.
The Humans is full of such lovely grandiose statements about humankind. Matt Haig is not afraid of a sweeping generalisation any more than he is afraid of peculiar specifics: the best things we have to offer, apparently, are Emily Dickinson, Debussy and peanut butter. (I can’t argue with that.) But this bravado is what makes the book work. If it had been written by a less mature, less confident writer it could have been a disaster. Thankfully it’s not a disaster—it is a finely-tuned balancing act of humour and sincerity.
It is not a great stretch of the imagination to make an allegorical link between ‘aliens’ and the sense of alienation and isolation that mental illness can evoke. Matt Haig explains his own experience in the notes at the end of the book. He first had the idea for The Humans in 2000 while living with a disorder that left him incapable of leaving the house without suffering a panic attack. He claims that reading and writing saved him. Though we experience it in different ways and to different extents, a sense of alienation is, ironically, something that unites us—it is, in itself, a very human trait:
So, I thought to myself as I walked away, this is what happens when you live on Earth. You crack. You hold reality in your hands until it burns and then have to drop the plate. (Someone somewhere else in the room, just as I was thinking this, did actually drop a plate.) Yes, I could see it now—being a human sent you insane.
The book and the alien’s exploration of human life crescendos decisively towards the beautifully lyrical and poignant chapter ‘Advice for a Human’—our friendly alien, in a sudden revelation of fatherhood, imparts everything he’s learned about humanity to Gulliver, Martin’s teenaged son. This chapter also provides the title and content for the book trailer that Matt Haig produced in collaboration with his Twitter and Facebook followers last month. It is an eminently quotable chapter in a book saturated with memorable turns-of-phrase. It includes such luminous lines as:
37. Don’t always try to be cool. The whole universe is cool. It’s the warm bits that matter.
84. You are more than the sum of your particles. And that is quite a sum.
The Humans has been likened to The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time—possibly because it also has a dog in it. But I wouldn’t consider our Vonnadorian to be a naïve narrator, although he has a similarly fresh perspective. I might compare The Humans to Life of Pi or even The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy—it is a profoundly philosophical novel but one with a sense of humour and a refreshing lack of pretension. It is unashamedly optimistic in contrast to our cynical age. It is a difficult book to explain but a deeply moving and enjoyable book to read.