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Sunday, 5 May 2013

The Humans


Mark Shermin: "Have people from your world been here before?"

Starman: "Before. Yes, we are interested in your species."

Mark Shermin: "You mean you're some kind of anthropologist? Is that what you're doing here? Just checking us out?"

Starman: "You are a strange species, not like any other... and you'd be surprised how many there are. Shall I tell you what I find beautiful about you?"


The HumansThere’s nothing new under the sun. If you’re a writer and you really want to depress yourself spend an hour or so (as I’ve just done) clicking through the links on There you’ll find evidence to back up my opening statement. There’s nothing, nothing (Shultz, Hogan’s Heroes) that’s not been done before. So when I picked up Matt Haig’s new novel The Humans I expected to be treading some familiar ground. And I did. To list just a few tropes we come across in this book: Aliens Among Us, Voluntary Shapeshifting, The World Is Not Ready, These are Things Man Was Not Meant To Know, They Look Like Us Now, Humans Through Aliens Eyes, Literal-Minded, Out Of Character Alert, Humanity Is Infectious, Pinocchio Syndrome, What Is This Thing You Call Love?, Curiosity Causes Conversion, Interspecies Romance, Spot The Imposter, Humans Are Special. In many respects this list just about summaries the whole book. It’s all been done before. And all I have to say to that is: Who cares?

I asked Matt if he felt a bit intimidated by all of this to which he replied:

[T]o answer your point, I take the view that there are no new stories. In fact there is only one story—the quest story. But my main aim with The Humans was to look at human life, and a non-human narrator was the simplest way of doing that.

Makes perfect sense to me. You see I loved Spock and Data and Seven of Nine, even Odo in his way, and Mork, and all the Solomons (from 3rd Rock from the Sun); I loved the Coneheads and ALF, Roswell, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and thestrangererslecardMy Favourite Martian. I really loved The Strangerers and was sorely pissed I missed the last episode because the show ended on a cliffhanger and has never been released on DVD. I loved The Outer Limits and The Twilight Zone. And I’ll tell you why I loved all of them: Because I could relate to them. Because I’m an alien too.

Okay, I’m not an alien but I’ve often felt like one. I’m a writer and, despite what you might think, there really aren’t that many of us kicking around the planet. I was a grown man before I met another one in the flesh. I’d read about them and their peculiar writing habits but as far as I was concerned I was on my own trying to make sense of these strange non-writing creatures I was surrounded by.

Although there isn’t anything especially new in this book it does say a lot that bears repeating. Our nameless narrator—seriously the Vonnadorians don’t use names—states the blindingly obvious, the kind of things that scientists and economists and sociologists and psychologists and environmentalists and religious leaders have been shouting from the rooftops pretty much for years, and yet somehow humanity is still trundling along merrily towards its eventual (but hopefully not that immediate) collapse. Which makes this book kind of pointless, yes? Only it’s not.

At first it starts off very much in the vein of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:

I know that some of you reading this are convinced humans are a myth, but I am here to state that they do actually exist. For those that don’t know, a human is a real bipedal lifeform of mid-range intelligence, living a largely deluded existence on a small waterlogged planet in a very lonely corner of the universe.

For the rest of us, and those who sent me, humans are in many respects exactly as strange as you would expect them to be. Certainly it is true that on a first sighting you would be appalled by their physical appearance.

Their faces alone contain all manner of hideous curiosities. A protuberant central nose, thin-skinned lips, primitive external auditory organs known as ‘ears’, tiny eyes and unfathomable pointless eyebrows. All of which take a long time to mentally absorb and accept.

The manners and social customs too are a baffling enigma at first. Their conversation topics are rarely the things they want to be talking about, and I could write ninety-seven books on body shame and clothing etiquette before you would get even close to understanding them.

Oh, and let’s not forget The Things They Do To Make Themselves Happy That Actually Make Them Miserable. This in an infinite list. It includes – shopping, watching TV, taking the better job, getting the bigger house, writing a semi-autobiographical novel, educating their young, making their skin look mildly less old, and harbouring a vague desire to believe there might be a meaning to it all.

Mating Habits of the Earthboud HumanNow if this sounds a bit like David Hyde Pierce’s narration to The Mating Habits of the Earthbound Human then you’ve got the right idea. Our unnamed alien is assigned to earth, only not as an anthropologist because they’ve already pretty much made their minds up regarding the human race: they are violent, arrogant, greedy, untrustworthy, hypocritical and dangerous. The most dangerous of all was one Andrew Martin, a professor of mathematics living in Cambridge, England. I say ‘was’ because on Saturday, the seventeenth of April, he was abducted by these aliens who extracted what they needed from him, killed him and then assigned one of their own to replace him. So I should probably have included the Kill and Replace trope in my list at the start too. This alien’s brief is a simple enough one: Destroy all physical evidence that a solution exists to the Riemann hypothesis and eliminate all humans who are even aware that there is a solution.

According to Marcus du Sautoy, “Most mathematicians would trade their soul with Mephistopheles for proof of the Riemann hypothesis.” Apparently it’s “the most important unresolved problem in mathematics.” And it’s all to do with prime numbers and the search for a pattern to them. Because there doesn’t seem to be one. And humans—especially human mathematicians—get really narky when they can’t see a pattern to things. They’d solved Fermat’s Last Theorem and the Poincaré conjecture but the Riemann hypothesis had eluded them until Professor Andrew Martin worked it out. And that was a problem. The Vonnadorians don’t belong to Starfleet; they’ve no Alien Non-Interference Clause to adhere to. So when they realise that the humans have unlocked the key, drastic action is needed. Despite arriving on earth stark naked, getting knocked down (whilst still naked), arrested (for being naked), sent for psychological assessment (for not realising what the big deal was about wandering around Cambridge naked)—nice K-Pax moment there—the doppelgänger still manages to find his way to Andrew Martin’s office within hours of his arrival (clothed by the time he does), locate the man’s research and Destroy the Evidence:

‘There,’ I told myself, ‘you may have just managed to save the universe.’ But things are never that simple, not even on Earth.

No, they’re not. Because Andrew had sent a copy to a colleague, confided in a friend, boasted to his son and mentioned it to his wife. So, what trope are we onto now? Leave No Witnesses. And that takes time. And that’s the problem. Because the more time the alien spends with humans the more he has his preconceptions shaken. And animals too. There’s a lovely Androcles Lion moment between the alien and Andrew’s old, sick dog that he heals. Of course at first the dog growls at him knowing he’s not his master—so that would be the Animals Hate Him moment—but afterwards they become best buddies even if the alien does struggle with the dog’s language. Then follows music and poetry, peanut butter sandwiches, Australian wine and sex. Eventually he does a Heel Face Turn and he Becomes The Mask. This may sound like a bit of a spoiler but from the preface to the book it’s pretty obvious that the alien has come to empathise with the humans. Needless to say his bosses are not pleased. He’s been warned that if he fails in his mission another will be assigned and that’s exactly what happens.

Man_who_fell_to_earth_ver1I’ve made my point. In so many respects this book is derivative and even fairly predictable. I should be panning it rather than praising it but I loved it. From the first page to the last. The short chapters kept the action rolling along and it was so easy to say to myself: Just one more chapter. It began, as I’ve said, in a light-hearted manner and although the humour never disappears completely the book does become more serious as it progresses. It never quite ends up as The Man Who Fell to Earth but it does ask some hard-hitting questions. If you’re not much of a reader though I suggest you locate a copy of the book, open it up to page 271 and tear out the four leaves that comprise the chapter entitled ‘Advice to a human’, fold them up, tuck them inside your jacket pocket and read them whenever you have a spare moment, sitting on the bus or train or waiting to be seen by the doctor. There are ninety-seven aphoristic statements here. Let me share a few:

1. Shame is a shackle. Free yourself.
2. Don’t worry about your abilities. You have the ability to love. That is enough.
3. Be nice to other people. At the universal level, they are you.
4. Technology won’t save humankind. Humans will.

16. Tragedy is just comedy that hasn’t come to fruition. One day we will laugh at this. We will laugh at everything.

22. Don’t worry about being angry. Worry when being angry becomes impossible. Because then you have been consumed.

25. There is only one genre in fiction. The genre is called ‘book’.[*]
26. Never be too far away from a radio. A radio can save your life.
27. Dogs are geniuses of loyalty. And that is a good kind of genius to have.

31. Failure is a trick of the light.

It’s almost worth the price of admission for this one chapter I’ll tell you. You can read the full list here but here’s a wee video that covers forty of them:

I really enjoyed this book. I really enjoyed this book in the same way I could sit down today and watch any episode of Mork and Mindy and enjoy it. It doesn’t matter that I know what’s coming; that’s the pleasure. Although she only said it out loud the once, you know Mindy was thinking it in every episode: “Oh, Mork; what Earth concept have you misunderstood this week?” The Humans is reassuring in that way. It’s like when you’re a kid and you want the same book read over and over again. If I didn’t have so many other books to get through I could happily pick this one up again.


matt haigMatt Haig was born in Sheffield, England in1975. He writes books for both adults and children, often blending the worlds of domestic reality and outright fantasy, with a quirky twist. His bestselling novels are translated into 28 languages. The Guardian has described his writing as 'delightfully weird' and the New York Times has called him 'a novelist of great talent' whose writing is 'funny, riveting and heartbreaking'.

His novels for adults are The Last Family in England, narrated by a labrador and optioned for film by Brad Pitt; The Dead Father's Club (2006), an update of Hamlet featuring an 11-year-old boy; The Possession of Mr Cave (2008), about a man obsessed with his daughter's safety, and The Radleys (2010)—which I reviewed here—which won Channel 4's TV Book Club public vote and was shortlisted for a Galaxy National Book Award (UK). The film rights to all his adult novels have been sold.

His multi-award winning popular first novel for children, Shadow Forest, was published in 2007 and its sequel, The Runaway Troll, in 2009. His most recent children's novel is To Be A Cat.


[*] For more on this read his blog entry Literary Fiction Must Go


Jonathan Chant said...

Great review Jim. I followed the link to the advice for humans bit. I'm feeling better already.

Jim Murdoch said...

Glad you enjoyed it, Jonathan. I guess when I had my hands on him I should’ve asked Matt how long he slogged over that chapter. I bet it was ages. My wife chided me for suggesting people tear pages out of a book by the way.

Anonymous said...

Much enjoyed this review, Jim. 't is the stuff of evaluative inspiration. Which is to say that as I write I am gathering a thought that "the nontrivial zeros of the Riemann zeta function" are among the last plot devices untouched by man, and the proof of their real part 1/2 would render them as tropes!

Jim Murdoch said...

You know, Brad, I wish I got all that mathy-science stuff but I really don’t. I enjoyed maths at school and I was good at it too but I dropped General Science as soon as I could in fact I took no sciences and no languages once I got to pick my own subjects. I don’t think kids have that choice anymore. I’m happy there are people out there who give a toss about things like Riemann zeta function but I’m not one of them. Given half a chance at school I would’ve probably taken English, English, English, English, English and, oh, some more English although I quite liked Music too. Can’t say I’ve made much use of anything else I learned at school.

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