The Humans, by Matt Haig, uses the story of an alien visiting earth to explore what it means to be human. It is perceptive and funny if a little idealistic, suggesting that there is hope for the world despite humankind’s propensity for greed, selfishness and acceptance of state sponsored violence.
The story centres around Professor Andrew Martin, a Cambridge academic who has solved the Riemann hypothesis, a mathematical problem that will lead to great technological advancement for the human race. As a result of this he is killed and his body taken over by a Vonnadorian, an alien from a planet where life is based around maths, logic and rationality. It is the Vonnadorian’s belief that humans would cause damage to the cosmos if they succeeded in mastering space travel. The alien’s mission is to kill all who have been made aware of the professor’s discovery.
A mission to planet earth is seen as a punishment and is undertaken with little prior knowledge. As a result the alien in Andrew Martin’s body spends his first few hours wandering naked around Cambridge whilst he learns the language and customs of the place. It is the insightful observations that he makes as an outsider looking in which give this book its strength.
Having encountered the police and the medical authorities the professor must then navigate family life, a family that he is tasked with killing. As he observes first hand the neglected wife and teenage son, who believe that Andrew is acting so strangely due to a mental breakdown, he begins to understand more about the human psyche. Despite his best efforts he finds himself empathising with their struggles and thereby puts his mission at risk.
The author touches lightly on so many aspects of humanity’s foolish behaviour. I particularly enjoyed the observations on how News became more interesting to humans the closer it got to home, especially when he quipped that social media is the ideal as it could be filtered to report only that which directly affected the user. He gently mocked efforts at recycling, and the time humans devote to pursuits that make them feel worse about themselves.
Despite the obvious human defects noted, the alien begins to question his orders and the supposedly perfect way of life he had enjoyed back home. In discovering poetry, music and human love he comes to understand that not everything can be logically explained. It is not just clothes that are used to mask what is underneath but also words and actions. So much of what may be observed on a human is a disguise, culturally ingrained as appropriate behaviour yet serving only as a mask.
This is an easy and entertaining book to read. Its gentle tone allows the reader to take as little or as much of the philosophy behind the observations as they wish. It is undemanding yet invites the reader to think about their everyday behaviour. It suggests that the world can become a better place not by destruction but by recognising the damage that humans cause to themselves and others by action and inaction, and by changing the way that they as individuals behave.