Normally, I would be writing about missteps and milestones today. But there weren’t really any missteps and there was a major milestone. As a result, I decided Matt Haig’s The Humans deserved more than a passing mention. It is the first book I’ve given a five star rating on Goodreads in two years. I also highlighted more passages in it than in any other book for at least that long.
The Humans is one of those books whose qualities exceed any description of it, particularly when the first thing you have to know is that it is narrated by an extraterrestrial. But for anyone to toss it in the genre bin for SF would be inexcusable. The SF element is simply a vehicle for telling a story about humans and the human condition.
The story stems from a brilliant, but not very likable, Cambridge mathematics professor, Andrew Martin, making a significant mathematical breakthrough. It is so significant that the Vonnadorians are concerned about what humans will do it. They kill Martin and our narrator inhabits his body with the mission to destroy any trace of the discovery.
The faux Martin is disgusted by his assignment. Not only will he have to cope with the “midrange intelligence” of humans “living a largely deluded existence,” but also their “hideous” bodies and “baffling” social customs (clothing, for example.) Moreover, he will have to take his place in the real Martin’s family, his wife and, among the most bewildering of homo sapiens, a teenage boy. Alien Martin slowly adjusts to his situation and begins writing an account of his mission for aliens. His commentary, frequently humorous ala Douglas Adams, reflects an increasing comprehension of the strange species on the planet. As that comprehension grows, his observations of humanity and the human condition become ever more insightful.
Through the SF structure Haig gives us an “objective” outside observer of our lives today. Not only do we see what it is to be human through innocent eyes, the fact the observer is not human eliminates or at least reduces any tendency to attribute his perceptions to biases we might impose on a human character. And while some might accuse Haig of occasionally resorting to platitudes, anyone who doesn’t see part of themselves in the story and reflect on their own life is missing its essence. The guileless alien Martin shows us how being human requires not just our strengths, hopes and talents but also our faults, frailties and failings.
You hold reality in your hands until it burns and then you have to drop the plate.
Matt Haig, The Humans