Space invader’s insights illuminating
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.