I first heard of Matt Haig’s book The Humans when listening to the radio 4 programme All in the Mind whilst walking alone in the snow. There was something about the warmth of tone in which the book was discussed that stopped me in my tracks. I am not an experienced reader of science fiction; I have often evaded the genre to brood in what I naively thought were the rawer emotions of realism. But I was wrong.
On the surface, the premise of Haig’s novel appears highly implausible. Andrew Martin, a Cambridge mathematics professor, is replaced by an identical alien who is tasked with destroying the man’s family and friends in order to keep secret the solution to the mathematical Riemann Hypothesis. The alien in turn develops emotions and this complicates proceedings. The cynic inside me sighs ‘Here we go again.’ The portrayal of ‘other’ life forms arriving on Earth and developing human emotions is not an uncommon one, and like all tropes in fiction, can be overplayed through a variety of forms – I remember the similar narratives of robot developing human emotion in the film of many-a childhood Ethics lesson, ‘Bicentennial Man’ . But the perspective Haig here provides is different. In using the first person – the very eyes and ears of the alien who is assuming the form of Professor Andrew Martin – we are provided with a view of the world which is not actually too far from our own, and is in many ways, eerily familiar.
Through these alien eyes Haig invites us to experience a perspective many of us may feel in our own lives – alienation. Haig himself regards the novel as very personal, as concerning his own experiences with depression, and in turn advocating that the book be as a ‘love story and a murder story and a what-are-we-here-for? story. It is about humans.’ In turn, it is a book that although nudged into the genre of ‘science fiction’ reveals what, I feel, are closer to facts on the nature of the human condition.
Through the narrator-alien assuming Andrew Martin and growing connections to the characters around him – whether through naked runs through clipped-grass quadrangles, illicit affairs or peanut butter sandwiches and white wine – Haig provides both a hilarious and heart-wrenching account of what it is to be human. His prose peels back to reveal the sensations of which we may be afraid to speak: attraction, appetite and absurdity. Especially poignant is an odd list of 97 points the alien leaves as testament to his experience on Earth, points we may believe to be obvious – but are they points we actually believe in ourselves? One which especially stood out to me was: ‘No one will understand you’. This is a painful reality perhaps, but Haig’s novel never ceases to ascertain that it is through this pain that we know and appreciate pleasure, through success we also know failure, and – although it may sound paradoxical – through the alien we may gain a greater appreciation of what it is to be human.
At two levels this can be considered a novel of engaging invasion: on one level, the invasion of Earth by alien form, but also – perhaps at a more profound level – what it is to have a mind invaded by illness, to feel exaggerated isolation, to have to deal with disconnection. And the message that it can be dealt with. Andrew Martin reflects on the lines of Emily Dickinson – ‘How happy is the little stone/ That rambles in the road alone’ – and I thought, as I walked across the snow, that the stone is only as happy as we think it is. Happiness is a sensation made in the mind, just as sadness, and Haig does not shy away from that. Throughout, his interlaced humour prevents the prose from falling into a kind of philosophising, maintaining an engaging energy close to confession at times. Whether it is a confession of how the mind can alienate, or how we can alienate the mind and even ourselves, The Humans is not just a book, but an experience. I thoroughly recommend it.
Image Credit: nudgemenow.com