A Stranger in a Strange Land Considers 'The Humans'

by Zachary Houle

25 August 2013

A dangerous-to-humankind alien finds the poetry of Emily Dickinson to be quite wonderful, enjoys the arty beauty of the Talking Heads’ second album, and develops a love for really crunchy peanut butter.
cover art

The Humans

Matt Haig

(Simon & Schuster)
US: Jul 2013

There’s been a fair whack of books, movies and TV shows about aliens coming to Earth and finding out what it means to be human. From The Day the Earth Stood Still to The Man Who Fell to Earth to Stranger in a Strange Land to E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial to, well, uh, ALF, science-fiction is choc-a-bloc with the idea that there’s something foreign about human existence that visitors from outer space might find fascinating. So, on that front, Matt Haig’s new novel The Humans is hardly original, as it deals with a trope that feels almost about as old as the genre of science-fiction itself. But what Haig brings to the table is sentimentality and humour in somewhat wonderful dollops.

Haig is an interesting writer in that he’s written books for both adults and children, and dogs tend to play a central role in much of his work. Indeed, Haig’s earlier novel, The Last Family in England, is essentially a retelling of Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part I with dogs as the protagonists. (And, yes, there’s a dog in The Humans. He’s named Newton and provides some of the book’s moral heft in acting as a mirror to the main character’s emotions.) The Humans has all of the wonder of one of Haig’s books for young adults, just peppered with enough f-bombs and tasteful sex scenes to make prudish parents want to hide this one away from all but the oldest of teenagers. 

The book is simply about this: an alien is recruited to inhabit the body of a Cambridge University mathematics professor named Andrew Martin, who has discovered the ultimate solution to the Riemann zeta function, which the book posits as a mathematical problem involving prime numbers. Solving the Riemann problem would mean that humans would be able to travel to the farthest reaches of outer space and discover this alien race in question, the Vonnadorians.

Haig doesn’t have much to say about the Vonnadorians – which is a slight problem of the work – but, suffice to say, they are immortals, live on a violet-colored planet, treat math as a religion and, obviously, lead very dull and boring lives. Given the human compulsion to start wars, this gives the Vonnadorians pause, so they set out through their alien interloper to destroy anything and anyone associated with Andrew Martin, including his research, close friends and immediate family.

The problem is, once this unnamed alien inhabits the body of Martin, he (assuming the Vonnadorians have gender, but since this alien is in a man’s body, let just go with it) begins to experience all of the wonderful things about being human, and begins to develop empathy towards the entire species. On a pop culture note, this alien begins to find the poetry of Emily Dickinson quite wonderful, enjoys the arty beauty of the Talking Heads’ second album, and develops a propensity towards really loving crunchy peanut butter. I would say that, as a result of this, wacky hijinks ensue – except for the problem that the Vonnadorians are entirely logical and merciless at achieving their ends, so you can pretty much expect the whole thing to end in tears.

That said, there are some real howlers sprinkled throughout The Humans. Early on, the alien observes as an aside, “A male human’s testicles were the most attractive thing about him, I realized, and vastly unappreciated by humans themselves, who would very often rather look at almost anything else, including smiling faces.” Bwah-ha-ha-ha-ha! And the book as a whole has a very comedic British feel to it, and feels as bright and airy as Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.

There’s another layer to The Humans that is quite remarkable, as well. If you allow yourself the pleasure, the plight of the alien in marveling at a strange new world has parallels to what it is like to suffer through a mental illness. (In fact, our alien protagonist finds himself in a mental hospital very early on.) Haig notes in the book’s acknowledgment section that he originally envisioned writing the novel in the year 2000, when he was in the grip of a panic disorder that prevented him from wandering out into the outside world beyond his home. Reading and writing helped the author through his illness, though he strayed from writing what is obviously a novel with personal resonance until now. While The Humans arguably doesn’t go quite deep enough in mining this particular theme – it might have been better off if it turned out that the alien living inside Andrew Martin’s head was really a product of psychosis – it’s still nice to read a book that humanizes the challenges of the mentally ill, and engenders sympathy for their plight.

However, for all that there is to love about The Humans, the story does have some inherent weaknesses. There are some plot holes that might cause your brain to hurt if you think about them too much. For example, if the Vonnadorians are immortal, what do they really have to fear from human advancement? If they cannot be killed, why would an advancing human army cause so much concern – particularly when they have powers and “gifts”, such as the ability to harm or heal someone by touching them with their left hands.

Also, one would assume that this alien species would be smart enough to do some research into their supposed adversaries and, if they had, they wouldn’t have delivered the body of Andrew Martin with its alien host to Earth completely naked, which, of course, causes all sorts of problems. As well, it’s really hard to love The Humans because, as much as its main narrator comes across as bumbling and affable, he’s been sent here to commit murder, and he actually does this before coming to the rather quick and swift realization that maybe there’s something to save about the human species after all. Haig expects reader to find empathy for a character that is basically a cold blooded killer, and this keeps us at a bit of a distance in telling the tale. It’s really hard to get immersed in this book when your protagonist is somewhat amoral.

Additionally, while the novel becomes more and more sentimental as it progresses – almost to a point where it starts to feel like an outtake from the Chicken Soup for the Soul series, and there is, indeed, towards the novel’s end, a list of nearly 100 things that makes human life so wonderful – you really begin to get the sense that Haig doesn’t have very much that is original to say about human life that someone who has almost reached middle-age (that would be me) wouldn’t have already figured out. While it’s nice to be reminded of things, such as work should be treated as play, and it would be wonderful if we had five days of the week that we really enjoyed instead of coming to dread, it just doesn’t really resonate in the way that it should. For that, perhaps The Humans would have been better off being aimed more at younger readers – and some of those f-bombs and sexy passages could have been removed as a result.

Still, there are moments in The Humans where one might wonder at some of the points Haig has to make, such as this one. “Magazines are very popular, despite no human’s ever feeling better for having read them. Indeed, their chief purpose is to generate a sense of inferiority in the reader that consequently leads to a feeling of needing to buy something, which the humans then do, and then feel even worse, and so need to buy another magazine to see what they can buy next.” Seeing that I write for one of these magazines, albeit on the Web, and I generally employ myself on the side by telling you, the reader and music listener, what you should and should not buy to engender your sense of happiness, this naturally caused me to put the book down for a moment and really wonder if what I’m doing here is more of a hindrance than a help.

Thus, The Humans can be, at times, a wonderfully poignant read, even as it gets mushy and gushy. “Sentimentality is another human flaw,” Haig writes. “And yet, there was a force behind it as authentic as any other.” Such is the case with this novel as a whole. It’s flawed and troubled, and there might be times where you’re frustrated by it or find it hard to cheer for its lead character, and, yet, by the end, there is a kind of powerful beauty and lyricism to it. And, heck, any novel that ends with a quotation from “This Must Be the Place” by the Talking Heads can’t be all that bad.

All in all, The Humans can be fun and page-flippingly delightful, and it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Haig is busy at work on a screenplay. It looks like The Humans is destined for a cosmic place in pop culture that, while not quite ranking at the same level of a Stranger in a Strange Land or The Man Who Fell to Earth, should elevate it at least above an ALF. The Humans is a very human read. With a dog, of course.

The Humans


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