Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
Matt Haig surprised me with the unexpectedly sweet How to Stop Time. So, of course when I learned he has a novel involving a mathematician who might have proved the Reimann Hypothesis, well … I just had to read it! The alien as fish-out-of-water is a tried-and-true trope of science fiction these days, allowing authors to comment on how wacky some human social and cultural conventions would seem to a true outsider. Haig seizes upon this as the central conceit of The Humans and takes it even further. What begins as seemingly benign documentation of human quirks soon turns into a life-or-death mission to eliminate any evidence that Andrew Martin has proved the Reimann Hypothesis. Because apparently the rest of the universe isn’t interested in sharing existence with humans just yet.
I’m torn on The Humans. On one level it’s a cobbled-together mess of unoriginal ideas, stylistic homages, and trite philosophy packaged into a “aren’t humans weird” cavalcade of scenes and sequels. On another level, Haig makes some interesting choices that make the novel tug on my heartstrings despite its unoriginality. The philosophical depth of the novel isn’t much, but it is there, which is more than one might say for some novels. And, of course, I’m a bit partial to the notion that a better understanding of fundamental mathematical theory is what unlocks our ability to transcend our physical existence and manipulate matter and space-time in a fundamentally new way.
Our narrator and protagonist never tells us their real name because they didn’t have one before coming to Earth. The Vonnadorians have some kind of gestalt hive-mind existence, a polity of individual consciousnesses nevertheless united towards a singular purpose. Thus, the being who takes over Andrew Martin’s life and is exposed to the brutalist individualism of human existence inevitably becomes “corrupted” by humanity, as always seems to happen in these cases. Their quest to eliminate anyone who might possibly have learned that Andrew Martin solved the hypothesis eventually gives way to a quest to survive and protect those closest to them, their adopted wife and child, from their superiors and any proxies sent by them. Yet their misunderstanding of human culture means that it isn’t as simple as taking over Andrew Martin’s life and carrying on as if nothing else were wrong. For one, Andrew Martin, it turns out, was a massive dick.
That’s one of those interesting choices I referred to above. It would be one thing if our alien protagonist took over the life of a sympathetic character. Is it “more ok” that they supplanted a “bad” guy? It certainly creates more friction and conflict between our narrator and their wife, Isobel, and son, Gulliver. One of the more rewarding aspects of the novel is watching their attempts to reconcile Andrew Martin with Isobel and Gulliver, which baffles those two to no end.
The Humans has a very Kurt Vonnegut feel to it. (I’m assuming the name “Vonnadoria” is a homage to him/the Tralfalmadorians of Slaughterhouse-Five.) Haig wrestles with much the same motifs and themes that Vonnegut explores throughout his oeuvre—namely, the point of human existence in a vast and uncaring block-time universe, and why we bother having emotional connections with other individuals when we know that these will inevitably end and quite probably hurt us in the process. This time it’s an alien experiencing this ennui rather than a human unstuck from time, but the parallels are striking. I don’t know. I liked it but I also didn’t—it definitely made me want to read more Vonnegut, but again, is there anything happening here I haven't seen before?
The whole mathematics motif was also a dud for me. So Andrew Martin made a huge discovery about prime numbers that might have caused the human species to jump way ahead in terms of technological development—and the Vonnadorians don’t want that, so they’re cheating and suppressing that knowledge in an efficient, surgical way. I mean, I guess it’s better than just destroying our whole planet! Nevertheless, as a mathematically-inclined person, I wish the mathematical aspects were more in the foreground of the story. It’s basically a plot device—and there really isn’t anything wrong with that—and as such doesn’t do anything extra for me.
The Humans has its touching moments of, well, human connection that made me like Haig’s How to Stop Time so much. Our protagonist bonds with a dog. Our protagonist has a genuine conversation with Andrew Martin’s son, which is more than many fathers of teenagers will ever experience. Our protagonist comes to understand how pain and suffering is just as much an essential component of the human experience as pleasure or intellectual pursuits.
All that being said, it just didn’t wow me. It didn’t enthrall me. There was too much about the writing, about the way Haig deploys the fish-out-of-water humour like an area-denial tactic … the novel comes on very strong, and so it kind of has to win you over or fall flat. It did the latter for me.