Books

A Stranger in a Strange Land Considers 'The Humans'

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.


The Humans

Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Length: 285 pages
Author: Matt Haig
Price: $25.00
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2013-07
Amazon

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.

6

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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