Book Review: The Humans by Matt Haig
The Humans is full of such wonderful writing that I almost turned into one of THOSE people. You know the ones I mean. The super-annoying ones who interrupt you every five minutes to read you yet another quote from the book they claim is totally fabulous. Awful, right? Yet in this case, I would have been perfectly justified. The Humans is, in fact, fabulous — and absolutely loaded with quote-worthy lines and passages that practically beg to be read out loud to whatever audience is available.
What’s it about? In a nutshell, The Humans is the story of an alien from a world far, far away… and light-years ahead of Earth in terms of understanding technology. When an Earthling mathematician named Andrew Martin makes a startling breakthrough that could, unbeknownst to him, completely change life for humans in ways detrimental to the rest of sentient life in the universe, the Vonnadorians decide he must be stopped.
An alien impersonator is sent to assume the life of Andrew Martin, figure out how much damage has been done, and then wipe out all evidence of his progress — which means eliminating not just computer files and notes, but also his wife, son, best friend, and anyone else who may have learned of Martin’s leap forward.
Faux-Andrew (he doesn’t actually have a name) shows up in Cambridge naked as a jaybird and has but minutes to adapt to life on Earth. Almost inevitably, he ends up in a psychiatric ward diagnosed with a mental breakdown, then is sent home to recover. And it is here that complications arise. The real Andrew Martin was kind of a jerk: completely absorbed in his work, completely neglectful of his vulnerable teen-aged son Gulliver and his lovely but ignored wife Isobel. But faux-Andrew, in his quest to complete his mission, actually pays attention to the people around him as he tries to ferret out what they know and what real-Andrew has told them… and the results are interesting, touching, and not at all what the alien visitor expects.
The Humans shows us what we Earthlings look like from an outsider’s perspective, and it’s not terribly flattering, especially at first. To be frank, humans are kind of disgusting:
I was repulsed, terrified. I had never seen anything like this man. The face seemed so alien, full of unfathomable openings and protrusions. The nose, in particular, bothered me. It seemed to my innocent eyes as if there was something else inside him, pushing through.
More than appearances, it’s the humans’ behavior that confounds the alien. The emotions, the beliefs in consumerism, religion, the micro-focus on their own small worlds and concerns while ignoring the greater events of the universe — all of this is completely bewildering and leads the alien to consider humans to be devoid of any sense of values:
The news was prioritized in a way I could not understand. For instance, there was nothing on new mathematical observations or still-undiscovered polygons, but quite a bit about politics, which on this planet was essentially all about war and money. Indeed, war and money seemed to be so popular on the news, it should more accurately have been titled The War and Money Show.
However, as he spends time among humans, things start to change. Faux-Andrew starts to feel, and has to reconsider whether a world such as his own — without pain, without change, without death, and without flaw — is really the best life has to offer. When faux-Andrew starts to feel pain, he also starts to feel love, and to realize that pleasant and easy are not substitutes for the things in life that have to be fought for — like relationships with people who matter, who hurt and who can cause hurt, and for whom he’d be willing to sacrifice his own well-being if that’s what it takes to protect them.
Ultimately, as faux-Andrew learns more and more about the people of this planet, The Humans become a meditation on what it means to be human. It’s quite lovely, actually. As voiced by a true alien, the homilies and lessons learned come across as real discoveries, not just a recitation of truisms or wisdom for the ages à la Everything I Need To Know I Learned in Kindergarten. Even in a chapter that consists of a numbered list of faux-Andrew’s pointers to Gulliver, entitled “Advice for a Human”, the words of wisdom avoid being treacly. Instead, the advice is concise, real, bittersweet, and often funny, and sum up a view of humans that we lack the distance and perspective to see for ourselves. Some of my favorites:
6. Be curious. Question everything. A present fact is just a future fiction.
25. There is only one genre in fiction. The genre is called “book”.
33. You are not the most intelligent creature in the universe. You are not even the most intelligent creature on your planet. The tonal language in the song of the humpback whale displays more complexity than the entire works of Shakespeare. It is not a competition. Well, it is. But don’t worry about it.
37. Don’t always try to be cool. The whole universe is cool. It’s the warm bits that matter.
47. A cow is a cow even if you call it beef.
75. Politeness is often fear. Kindness is always courage. But caring is what makes you human. Care more, become more human.
I could go on and on… see what I mean about how quote-worthy this book is? I honestly can’t stop marking pages and lines that I think are just wonderful.
So maybe that’s where I should leave this review: by saying that The Humans is a wonderful book. The writing is an amazing balance of clever, funny, and a straight-to-the-heart emotional punch. The plot is smart and creative, and our first-person narrator, the unnamed alien, is more human than most actual humans by the end of the story.
The Humans is the third book I’ve read by Matt Haig, having previously read the vampires-in-suburbia novel The Radleys and the Hamlet retelling The Dead Fathers Club (my review is here). I’ve loved all three; at this point, I can safely say that I’ll be reading more by Matt Haig — much more, I hope.
Title: The Humans
Author: Matt Haig
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: 2013
Genre: Book 🙂
Source: Library book