The Humans, by Matt Haig
What does it mean to be human? It is power, money and possessions? Or is it sociological, like community and family? Or is it more abstract, like love? These are the questions that the unnamed alien narrator in Matt Haig’s The Humans ponders, as he attempts to halt mankind’s progress at the behest of his masters, the Vonnadorians.
The alien has been sent to Earth in place of Professor Andrew Martin, of the University of Cambridge, who has solved the Riemann hypothesis, which says there is a pattern to be found in the infinite number of prime numbers (just don’t, it will drive you insane), but died before telling anyone. The Vonnadorians are a technologically superior species from galaxies away, who enjoy all of the results from solving mathematics’ biggest mystery. But they fear what will happen to the universe if a species like humanity solves the prime number puzzle, so without logic and infested with emotion as they are.
What results is the most heart-warming story, in which a completely alien man struggles to understand clothes, the news, teenagers, rectangle rooms and much more. He hates the rain, is sickened by human food, and finds everyone physically repulsive. And his mission is one of sabotage and murder, instructed as he is to remove all knowledge of and reference to Martin’s solution to the Riemann hypothesis. But slowly, as Haig uses the alien narrator’s naivety to full comedic effect, he comes to see the logic in humanity and how it can be both brilliant and brutal, impatient and lazy. He grows to love his adopted family, yearns for his ‘wife’ to hold his hand, and ultimately chooses to stay, with his mission seemingly complete, rather than return home.
The comedy is a joy to read, because it crosses the full spectrum of humour. The narrator considers attractiveness to be largely glandular, peanut butter sandwiches to be fine fare for Australian wine, and cows to be one-stop shops for mankind, given that they can be visited for food, drink and designer handbags. Then there is the slapstick, when the narrator walks naked through the streets of Cambridge, unable to grasp the mistakes he makes in walking in the road and depositing the appropriate quantity of spit in front of passers-by. The Humans is as funny as science fiction can be, even as it strives to answer the question of what it means to be human.
The plot eventually turns the alien narrator on his head, making him defender of the family he was sent to kill. And he must do so without the ‘gifts’ that gave him an advantage, so he becomes as weak and vulnerable as those around him, and that much more human, and that much more fallible. This switch is a well-executed metaphor for humanity, as full as it is with juxtaposition, irony and the search for identity. The narrator forgets what is to be Vonnadorian and grows to hate the colour purple, even though he was that colour in his true form. This reversal of character is Haig’s best guess to the question that the narrator ponders throughout The Humans, that humanity doesn’t really mean anything but the sum of its parts, and all 25,000 days that those parts spend together, in chaotic harmony.