Space in­vader’s in­sights il­lu­mi­nat­ing

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - ARTS & LIFE -

THIS odd novel, told from the per­spec­tive of an alien who has just ar­rived on Earth, of­fers some in­sight into how be­wil­der­ing our lives on this planet re­ally are.

Bri­tish writer Matt Haig has pre­vi­ously writ­ten crit­i­cally ac­claimed nov­els for young read­ers, such as Shadow For­est and Run­away Troll (the for­mer win­ning the Nestlé Chil­dren’s Book Prize in 2007). His 2011 vam­pire novel, The Radleys, con­cerns a fam­ily with a dark se­cret, whereas The Hu­mans is about a fam­ily that doesn’t know it has a se­cret.

It is a sad, funny, silly and, at times, bit­ing satire. It calls to mind ev­ery­thing from TV’s Third Rock from the Sun to Robert Hein­lein’s clas­sic novel Stranger in a Strange Land.

As the novel opens, an un­known math­e­ma­ti­cian named An­drew Martin has stum­bled onto a so­lu­tion for the Reimann prob­lem of prime num­bers, set­ting the stage for bound­less pos­si­bil­i­ties of its ap­pli­ca­tion.

Un­for­tu­nately, an ad­vanced in­ter­stel­lar alien race called the Von­nado­ri­ans — an homage to the late Kurt Von­negut and his Tralfamado­ri­ans? — doesn’t think Earth­lings are ready for such de­vel­op­ments as free en­ergy, tele­por­ta­tion and mat­ter trans­mu­ta­tion.

They send one of their own to take over Martin’s mind and body, to de­stroy all ev­i­dence of his break­through and elim­i­nate all oth­ers who might have knowl­edge of his dis­cov­ery.

Of course, it would have helped for the alien, who goes un­named, to have known some­thing about hu­mans; like that we wear cloth­ing and houses are not ca­pa­ble of move­ment on their own. Oh, and books have to be read, not eaten, al­though one ex­am­ple of hu­man read­ing mat­ter called Cos­mopoli­tan is not a truly use­ful field guide to the species.

The alien is most aghast we have re­ally, re­ally aw­ful food. A veg­etable stir-fry ap­par­ently smells to him “like Bazadean body waste.”

The Hu­mans is a new take on the stan­dard sci-fi premise of an alien try­ing to make sense of ter­res­trial so­ci­ety. Haig’s wrin­kle is the alien is be­ing watched by his (its?) su­pe­ri­ors who in­sist his mis­sion of elim­i­nat­ing all of Martin’s fam­ily and col­leagues must be com­pleted.

The alien ar­gues un­suc­cess­fully against his or­ders be­cause he has be­gun fall­ing in love with Martin’s wife, who is com­pletely per­plexed as to why her dis­tant, ar­ro­gant hus­band is now act­ing so dif­fer­ently. Martin’s son has been suf­fer­ing be­cause his fa­ther used to be so dis­tant but now has taken an in­ter­est in his teenage angst.

The alien speaks di­rectly to the reader, de­scrib­ing hu­mans in a clin­i­cal and oc­ca­sion­ally as­tute man­ner. He notes hu­mans are of mid-range in­tel­li­gence and are best de­scribed as “diploid, eu­kary­otic pri­mates.” Cows, on the other hand, are mul­tipur­pose un­gu­lates, which hu­mans “treat as a one-stop shop for food, liq­uid re­fresh­ment, fer­til­izer and de­signer footwear.”

Hu­mans are also fas­ci­nated with tele­vi­sion news, which the alien calls, “The War and Money Show.”

Com­ing from a purely math­e­mat­i­cal and log­i­cal so­ci­ety, Haig’s alien is over­come by the hu­man emo­tions he ex­pe­ri­ences in his ac­quired body. Are hu­mans worth sav­ing, af­ter all?

As the alien grows more sym­pa­thetic to the cause of hu­man­ity, he is faced with a grave choice: ei­ther com­plete his mis­sion or stay on Earth in his host body, los­ing all his re­gen­er­a­tive and mat­ter-ma­nip­u­la­tive pow­ers. To en­joy the po­etry of Emily Dick­in­son (of which he has be­come en­am­oured) or stop the hu­man race from ex­pand­ing out­ward into space and mak­ing a real mess of things?

Most read­ers will be able to pick one or the other.

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