THE FRIGHTENING BEAUTY OF BEING HUMAN – The Humans by Matt Haig
Professor Andrew Martin, Cambridge mathematician, is dead. An alien, in his body, returns in his place. That would normally be enough to make me switch off, turn away, put the book down – but bear with me – The Humans is utterly brilliant. Everyone should have a copy.
The alien-Andrew Martin lands, not in his office as anticipated, but on a motorway. Naked. Passersby hurl abuse and spit, leading to an unfortunate, albeit temporary idea, that this is the standard greeting on earth.
Before Andrew’s extra-terrestrial demise, he solved the Riemann hypothesis (it’s about prime numbers), which would make humans advance technologically, and since humans are not very good at this, without destroying each other and other life forms, the Vonnadorians kill him. Andrew, the Vonnadorian, is sent to earth to wipe out all traces of the proof, including the mathematician’s wife, child and friends.
What the alien discovers is that the mathematician was self-centred, selfish and egotistical, with a beautiful, clever, patient wife and a suicidal teenage son. As the new Andrew struggles to understand the humans, he gradually falls in love with peanut butter sandwiches, cheap white wine, Emily Dickinson’s poems and the mathematician’s wife.
In The Humans Matt Haig manages to avoid being twee, ridiculous or schmaltzy. The novel is almost a series of essays, a meditation on what it means to be human, but leavened with humour and held together with some strong narrative glue.
‘A human life is on average 80 Earth years, or around 30,000 Earth days. Which means they are born, they make some friends, eat a few meals, they get married, have a child or two, drink a few thousand glasses of wine, have sexual intercourse a few times, discover a lump somewhere, feel a bit of regret, wonder where all the time went, know they should have done it differently, realise they would have done it the same, and then they die.’
The character of Andrew Martin is a feat to be applauded – the alien has essentially no character, as he comes from an immortal hive culture without family or ego, yet his gentle curiosity and growing romanticism is heart-warming. He succeeds in convincing everyone that he really is Andrew Martin, partly because Cambridge mathematicians, are, presumably, a little alien in their interactions with other humans.
The Humans is a cross between Fermat’s Last Theorem and ET. It’s a glorious mix of science, poetry and what it means to love.
‘I was mesmerised by her. All eleven trillion cells of her…How I craved the sweet everyday reality of just being with her…I couldn’t think of a better purpose for the universe than for her to be in it.’
At its heart, The Humans is a modern-day gender-role reversal of The Little Mermaid, a creature who abandons his own atmosphere, trading a life of ease for one of unending suffering, all for love.