humans“I know some of you reading this are convinced humans are a myth, but I am here to state that they do actually exist.”

In the debate about whether there is life on other planets in this universe, I am firmly on the side of those who believe there is. I mean, the idea is terrifying, but even more terrifying is that in this infinite expanse of mostly-nothing, only one planet developed life. I don’t necessarily believe that we’ll meet any other species – the universe is probably too big and too old. For all we know, we were latecomers to the party. Or maybe we’re really early and we’ll be dying out by the time other lifeforms begin to appear.

Because we don’t know about what’s out there (although Doctor Who and Douglas Adams have given us some pretty cool suggestions), most of our fictions tend to focus on the human race, although sometimes we take a lot of the stuff we do for granted. Sometimes someone needs to come along and shake us up a bit, study us from the outside. That is what Matt Haig has tried to do in this book.

Our narrator is a Vonnadorian, one of a hive-mind-like race that has studied mathematics to the point that it can use it to make themselves immortal, control the minds of others, heal themselves instantly and remove any need for war, pain, guilt or sadness. They exist now to love mathematics and keep order in the universe. They discover that on a far off watery spot called Earth, Professor Andrew Martin has solved the Riemann hypothesis, an up-to-then unsolved problem about the nature and distribution of prime numbers. Apparently this discovery would alter the future of humans in a way that would be difficult for them to deal with, so the narrator is sent to take over Andrew’s body, remove all evidence of the solution from Earth and kill anyone who may have been told about it, including Andrew’s wife and teenage son.

He arrives on Earth confused and lost, learning the language from an issue of Cosmopolitan he found in a petrol station, and being agog at the fact that cars can’t fuel themselves and buildings don’t move. After realising that orgasms are the most important thing to the human race – a race that, he has been told by others of his species, is otherwise motivated only by violence and greed – he sets off to find Cambridge University where Andrew was a lecturer. However, he soon has a run in with the police after discovering that wandering the streets of England naked is frowned upon.

He claims to have had a nervous breakdown and eventually is free to go home with Isobel, his unsuspecting wife, and their moody son Gulliver, with whom he has a strained relationship. That is, Andrew had a strained relationship – the narrator has to fake it. As he gets closer to his supposed family, Andrew begins to feel a little bit more human. He learns more about their ways and discovers that maybe the Vonnadorians had it wrong. Humans aren’t only motivated by violence and greed, at least, not all of them. And can a race that produced peanut butter, white wine and Emily Dickinson really be as bad as all that?

Haig may be alien himself as he has a wonderful eye for the absurdities of our lives. The narrator is concerned by the lack of imagination in buildings – all squares, rectangles and straight lines – doesn’t understand why we’d drink Diet Coke or coffee, and is completely incomprehending of why a cow changes its name to “beef” when humans eat it. (I do love the suggestion here though that we use that word that is the furthest monosyllable away from the sound “cow”, because we don’t like to think about it.)

He makes some wonderful observations about things we would take for granted. The alien views pubs as “an invention of humans living in England, designed as compensation for the fact they were humans living in England”, and Catholicism is a branch of Christianity obessed with “gold leaf, Latin and guilt”. One of the most haunting is his notion that to create human civilisation, we had to “close the door on [our] true selves”, which is then why we invented art, to find our way back. He has decided that humans live to hide – lies hide truths, clothes hide bodies, walls hide rooms and laughter hides sadness. He acknowledges that we are a violent, greedy, self-absorbed race, but we understand these flaws and some of us at least are trying to address them. From the outside, humans are a bit weird, but remarkable and fascinating to him nonetheless.

The book allows you to see us for what we really are, highlighting that pain and loss are the prices we pay for life and the joys it can bring. Humans die and, while to the narrator the idea is abhorrent, he becomes curious as to how humans manage to trundle along anyway and mostly ignore this fact that looms over every second of their existence. Towards the end of the novel, he gives a list of advice on how to be a human, and it’s wonderful. The list could probably do more for humanity than any religion ever has if we would just pay attention to its rules like, “5. Laugh. It suits you.” and “39. No one is completely right about anything.” Perhaps my favourite is “67. War is the answer. To the wrong question.”

A wonderful, intelligent and tender novel that can bring out the human in all of us.