Cute, charming, colorful, feel-good—it’s tough to find a toe-hold to open a review of Matt Haig’s 2013 The Humans. Just intelligent enough to stray the right side of maudlin, it’s a story that confirms humanity’s foibles in a tried and true fashion, but does so at least with a bit of clever and endearing wit. And that, I suppose, is where it’s value lies.
Solving the Riemann hypothesis apparently the key to unlocking humanity’s spread across the universe, an alien race called the Vonnadorians find out that Earthlings are on the verge of discovering the solution and take steps to prevent this by sending one of their own to prevent it. Killing and taking the form of math professor Andrew Martin, the Vonnadorian arrives on Earth with minimum knowledge and maximum loathing for humans. He also arrives completely naked, and is forced through a gauntlet of police and newspaper stories to get back to some sense of domestic normalcy. Cutting right to the chase, “Andrew” kills colleagues and acquaintances who are aware of his research into Riemann’s hypothesis, but slowly, through interaction with his wife, despondent teenage son, mistress, and friends, he learns what it means to be human.
The actual novel more charming and well-written than my plot summary, The Humans is predictable humanism, but it retains delights line by line, scene by scene. From the opener where “Andrew” is on the loose completely in the buff to learning about humanity through Cosmopolitan magazine, Haig plays off the alien perspective of humanity to its fullest. There are numerous laugh-out-loud moments as “Andrew” gives his description of dogs, fashion, sex, and many other standard aspects of life. And to be fair, the body of the plot itself is not entirely predictable. The average reader will be able to guess the final outcome, but the journey is anything but mundane or formulaic.
In the end, The Humans is humanism of the purest science fictional hue. An alien sent to kill certain people with knowledge key to humanity expanding beyond Earth, he is given human form in the body of a man who is dealing with a lot of the issues we all deal with—at work, at home, and in his head. The novel on one hand a wholly contrived conceit, on the other it is clever line by line, charming, and wins the reader over—despite the conceit—for its wit, warmth, and concern. The books will probably not change your worldview, but it will make you hug your husband or wife, mother or father, son or daughter—even give your dog a little extra treat under the table when no one is looking.
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