Thursday, 20 June 2013

The Humans - Book Review

The Humans
by Matt Haig

Amazon (UK) (USA)

The narrator of this tale is no ordinary human—in fact, he’s not human at all. Before he was sent away from the distant planet he calls home, precision and perfection governed his life. He lived in a utopian society where mathematics transformed a people, creating limitless knowledge and immortality.

But all of this is suddenly threatened when an earthly being opens the doorway to the same technology that the alien planet possesses. Cambridge University professor Andrew Martin cracks the Reimann Hypothesis and unknowingly puts himself and his family in grave danger when the narrator is sent to Earth to erase all evidence of the solution and kill anyone who has seen the proof. The only catch: the alien has no idea what he’s up against.

Disgusted by the excess of disease, violence, and family strife he encounters, the narrator struggles to pass undetected long enough to gain access to Andrew’s research. But in picking up the pieces of the professor’s shattered personal life, the narrator sees hope and redemption in the humans’ imperfections and begins to question the very mission that brought him there. (Synopsis from Goodreads)

There’s a lot to like about this book. It’s well written, clever and funny, and the characters all feel incredibly real. The main character (and narrator) is an alien in the form of a human man, taking the identity of the professor who has solved a critical maths problem, and so must be eliminated along with his family before the other humans can become aware of his breakthrough. At first he is repulsed by everything human, then begins to change and to eventually empathise with them. This journey is subtle yet surprisingly quick, as the narrator is first won over by small things, and then by the incredible depths of human feeling. His observations about human life are often funny, and sometimes quite revealing. The people the alien comes into contact with are part of what makes this book so successful; Andrew’s wife and son (and the family dog), in particular, are wonderful characters.

The aliens themselves are extremely advanced compared to humans, and clearly feel themselves superior. They prize logic above emotion, and yet act a little irrationally when it comes to humans, insisting on extreme measures and worrying constantly about a kind of contamination, that their agent among the humans may become corrupted and begin to sympathise with them. This leads to a lot of tension as the main character does indeed begin to care for the humans. There’s an air of menace running under the surface of the whole book, even in the most mundane scenes such as sitting on a sofa and sharing peanut butter with a dog. There is also an interesting question running through. The aliens believe humans to be monsters, but in their cold methods and intervention, are the aliens any better?

Unfortunately, I did have a few issues with the book. The story and the science fictional elements are almost background to the true theme, which is exploring what it means to be human. There were some elements that were almost forgotten about because they were not useful to the theme, such as the simple matter of how the narrator intends to get his words to the aliens, or why there are not more repercussions after a certain event at the end (being vague on purpose to avoid spoilers). I also found the fact that the original Andrew has been killed to make way for alien-Andrew to be more than a little disturbing, and breezed over a bit too easily to be anywhere near realistic. Andrew may not have been a good person, but he does not deserve to have his entire personality and identity replaced with another version of himself who chooses different paths while posing as him, and who becomes what is clearly shown to be a 'better' version of him. The more you think about it, the more horrific it is, really. I think I would have liked it if this had been touched on a little more.

There were also times where the story became lost entirely in reflection, which was good at points and a little tiresome at others, and the slightly triumphal tone of how special humans are did sometimes become annoying. This may be because the ‘humans are special’ trope is vastly overdone in the kinds of science fiction stories I read and play. On the other hand, there were some genuinely beautiful parts of the novel where we are reminded of what’s really important in life, and to appreciate what we have, and overall the message was a good one.

Choosing an alien point of view to show us a new perspective on what it means to be human is obviously useful, but does also present certain problems. The first is that it has been done many times, and though this book was enjoyable and clever, I didn’t feel that it added anything really new. The second issue is that the alien has come to a very tiny, specific part of the world – the UK – and into a very particular kind of experience – British, male, white, academic, wealthy. This isn’t so much about what it means to be human as what it means to be those things, and when the narrator is constantly telling us about how humans believe or do certain things, this niggled at me a bit. The alien also knows enough about Earth to accuse humans of being cruel in their lack of care for the people on their planet who are starving and suffering, yet does not care about them at all himself or even consider them in his ponderings on what it means to be human. But then, perhaps that’s actually a very astute comment on what it means to be human after all!

The greatest strength of the novel was in the characterisation of Andrew. And by that, I mean both Andrews. There’s the original Andrew, the self-obsessed and arrogant professor who is taking his family for granted and in very real danger of losing it. And then there’s the alien Andrew, who desperately tries to fit in and then, against all his expectations, actually does begin to fit in. We see the original Andrew in the gaps he’s left, and in the ways characters react to the imposter Andrew, and we begin to see a little of the man this Andrew must have been, long ago. This is perhaps the deepest and most honest examination of a character that I have ever seen in fiction.

So, there’s a lot to like about The Humans, and also some elements that I thought let the book down a bit. It’s a reflective story without much action, and on the whole this is a very good thing. The characters are what’s important here, and these are all extremely well written. Thoughtful, clever and funny, I enjoyed the book, and despite a few issues, overall I found its message to be both moving and uplifting.

Thank you to Canongate Books and NetGalley for providing a review copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

1 comment:

  1. Great review, Victoria! I, too, would be disturbed by the elimination (murder?) of the original Andrew, no matter how unpleasant he was. But I'm glad that the good aspects of the book outweigh that issue. It sounds like a thought-provoking and interesting read.