British novelist Matt Haig explores the age-old question "what's so great about being a human" in his new novel, "The Humans."
The protagonist belongs to an advanced race of beings for whom mathematics is the basis of everything. They live perfect, peaceful lives under geometrically pleasing domes, possess a slew of powerful "gifts" and can travel anywhere in the universe in the blink of an eye thanks to their mathematical knowledge.
By Matt Haig
Simon & Schuster ($25).
Unfortunately for our protagonist, he must leave his calm life and carry out a mission on one of the worst planets in the universe: Earth. Everyone knows that the denizens of Earth are primitive, hideous, violent beings capable of immense destruction.
Therefore, when Andrew Martin, a mathematics professor, solves the greatest math riddle that any human has ever encountered, the higher beings of the universe decide that his progress must be stopped. Given the humans' track record with things such as turning Einstein's equation E=mc2 into the atomic bomb, it seems like a bad idea to let them get their hands on any greater knowledge.
The gentler races are sure that if humans acquired the same capabilities they have, war would break out across the galaxies. So our main character -- who is never given a name of his own, because on his collectivist planet, individual identifiers are meaningless -- takes on the appearance of Professor Andrew Martin and sets out to destroy his life's work.
This also involves killing anyone who might have overheard too much about Andrew's recent discoveries, such as his wife and son. We've seen the overall plot arc of this story before. Scornful alien from a superior, peace-loving and hive-minded race comes to Earth, prepared to hate the warmongering humans, only to discover love and poetry (and, in this particular book, peanut butter).
But Mr. Haig's talent for wordplay becomes apparent in the finer details. From his alien's musings on the freakish human body ("The nose, in particular, bothered me. It seemed to my innocent eyes as if there was something else inside him, pushing through") to the merciless observations about our behavior in general ("Humans, I was discovering, believed they were in control of their own lives, and so they were in awe of questions and tests, as these made them feel like they had a certain mastery over other people").
Mr. Haig allows us to look at our often ridiculous, contradictory lives from an outsider's perspective. His narrator's naivete often results in hilarious situations, such as when he spends an entire morning wandering through Cambridge nude, because nobody bothered to inform him that clothes were important, or when he reads Cosmopolitan and deduces that "orgasms were the central tenant of life here."
But later in the story, as the man who is not Andrew Martin gets to know Andrew Martin's caring wife and troubled son, as he reads Emily Dickinson, listens to Debussy and begins to see the beauty in both humanity and our planet, his observations become more poignant: "Love is scary because it pulls you in with an intense force, a supermassive black hole, which looks like nothing from the outside but from the inside challenges every reasonable thing you know. ... It makes you do stupid things -- things that defy all logic. The opting for anguish over calm, for mortality over eternity, and for Earth over home."
This is not a book about a destination -- a twist ending or a quick plot trick. This book is all about the journey. Mr. Haig does a masterful job of drawing us into his narrator's mind. We come to sympathize with his struggles as he learns to cope with his newfound humanity, but we are also forced to take a good hard look at our own lives in the process.
For example, if we live for only approximately 30,000 days, why don't we have more Saturdays and less Mondays? If you're stuck in a bored-with-life rut at the moment, this book will make you want to hoist yourself up by your bootstraps and take advantage of what all us lucky humans sometimes forget we have: the opportunity to live, love and eat a ton of peanut butter paired with cheap white wine when we feel like it.
Ellen Goodlett (email@example.com) is a Pittsburgh native and writer living in New York.