“The Long War” by Terry Pratchett & Stephen Baxter (2013)

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“On an alternate world, two million steps from Earth: The troll female was called Mary by her handlers, Monica Jansson read on the rolling caption on the video clip.”

It’s another one of those posts that’s about a sequel. Go and read The Long Earth and then come back here. Done that? Great. Welcome! On we go…

It’s been twenty-five years since Step Day, the fabled day that people learned they could step to parallel Earths where they have access to all the space and resources they could wish for with minimal interference from the governments of home. The Long Earth is flourishing, with people setting up new colonies over a million steps away from home. As people begin to shape the new Earths, the new Earths fight back.

Because it turns out that events are taking their toll on everyone. New societies resent answering to the politicians at home and have no interest in paying taxes when the government give them nothing in return. Humans have also begun to turn on the trolls, a peaceful and musical race of humanoids with a curious hive mind, and the more trolls learn about humans, the fewer of them there seem to be around, which is a problem as they had been serving as a cheap and willing addition to the workforce. It also turns out that trolls aren’t the only other sapient species out there, and soon humans find themselves crossing paths with the sly kobolds and the dog-like beagles.

Joshua Valienté, famous for exploring further than anyone else, has settled down with his wife and son and has no desire to be as famous as he is. However, when news of a war is brewing, he gets summoned to assist, reunited with omnipotent intelligence Lobsang and survivalist Sally Linsay. Elsewhere, Sally has her own mission in mind, the American military is sending out troops to reunite the various Americas, and the Chinese have just launched a mission to get twenty million worlds east from the homeland. As things come to a head, it seems that it’s not just people that are going to change, as a good number of the alternate Yellowstone Parks have begun to show unusual activity…

The concept remains strong, but there are so many threads here that sometimes you have to run to keep up. Each of the individual stories, while they do eventually all sync up right at the end, would work in a book of its own, and while you’re jumping around them all, none of them maintain their momentum. That’s not to say it’s a bad book. The combined imagination of Baxter and Pratchett leads to pure magic, and the worlds we get to see are remarkable. Many of them are pretty much the same as Earth, just with no people and a slightly different evolutionary path for everything else, but some of the more unusual ones are fun. One Earth contains enormous swarms of huge locusts, their existence theorised to be because pterosaurs never evolved here to start eating them. In another, intelligent tortoises rule the planet. One very odd one is as smooth as a cue ball and no one can explain why or how. The sandpit that the authors have unleashed has infinite games to play in it, and I hope that the future books explore more of these. Yes, the people are interesting, but there’s a universe of concepts here, and boy do I love a good concept.

It’s also amazing to see the other sapient species and learn how their culture works. They have entirely different sets of honour systems or languages. The beagles, a race of wolf-like bipeds, communicate mostly by smell and believe that death is a high honour because life is cheap among them. All this really adds to the story, and takes you away from wondering quite how all of the more minor stuff is happening. I’m not complaining about it, but I don’t want to spend too long wondering how new cities are built in the alternate Earths. Just let it be.

A little bit of a slog, but I’ll be stepping on to the next book soon enough.

Did you know that as well as reviewing everything I read, I also write novels, too? My books blend black humour with light horror, crossing genres with ordinary characters dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Head over to wherever you buy books to take a look at my two offerings. The first, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, introduces you to a cannibal, an ex-god and the last witches of Britain, while the second, The Third Wheel, follows a man who is tired of being single while all his friends get married, but has a change of priority when aliens invade the planet. I hope you enjoy!

“The Long Earth” by Terry Pratchett & Stephen Baxter (2013)

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“In a forest glade: Private Percy woke up to birdsong.”

The multiverse theory has always been an interesting one. It suggests that our universe is not the only one in existence, but that there are other options out there, perhaps an infinite number. It is popularly assumed that they also represent alternate timelines and possibilities for the Earth and its occupants, and if only we could tap into them, we could see how things might have turned out. Because of this, alternate history stories are commonplace and often rich in imagination. However, when the greatest minds of science fiction and fantasy come together, it produces something special.

Step Day changed everything. When a reclusive scientist goes missing, leaving behind only instructions for the creation of a Stepper, the world will never be the same again. Anyone can make a Stepper, and with it pass from this world into alternate Earths, soon discovering that they go on and on. Some people use it to flee from responsibility. Others want to explore. Some still can see this as an opportunity to access resources and riches that they can’t get on what is now called Datum Earth.

Joshua Valienté is, however, one of a rare breed of people called natural steppers. Without the use of a device, he can cross through to the other Earths without any of the side effects of illness that most other people experience. He is hired by the transEarth Institute to travel through the Earths up to the “High Meggers” – the distant Earths – and learn more about these worlds. Accompanied by Lobsang who is either the soul of a Tibetan motorcycle repairman caught in software or a genuinely sentient AI, Joshua begins a journey through thousands of worlds, but with eighty per cent of people on Earth now able to access these worlds and evolution having produced different results elsewhere, he’s soon going to find there are far more questions than answers out there. Where have the worlds come from? Who are the trolls and what are they running from? And why can’t you move iron across a boundary?

I’ve not read much Stephen Baxter, but what I have is always phenomenal. He is truly one of the greatest science fiction writers in history, and the only reason I haven’t read more is that they’re usually very long and hefty tomes. Everything he writes, no matter how impossible it seems at first, comes across as realistic and perfectly probable. Pratchett, I am always more wary of and still can’t fully embrace the Discworld novels. However, as with Good Omens, it seems that, for me at least, Pratchett is best when tempered by someone else, but his imagination and humour come through here for sure, and a lot of the jokes and pop culture references are certainly his doing.

Between them, they have produced a scenario that is fascinating. True consideration has gone in to what would happen in a world like this. Religious factions spring up, crime becomes complicated on Datum Earth but rarely seen anywhere else due to the abundance of resources, and there is a lot of rearranging of economics and philosophy required. I also like the reaction of various nations to the change. The USA, for example, attempts to claim all versions of American soil as their own. Australia’s indigenous people disappear through the worlds in record numbers. The UK is one of the few countries that tries to ban stepping, but most of the population can’t be bothered with it, given Britain is routinely so densely forested it’s hard to get very far.

We meet a lot of characters, all going through different things and showing the different ways people reacted to the aftermath of Step Day, and the timeline jumps back and forth with reckless abandon. The stars of the book for me, however, are the Earths themselves. They are mostly uniform, and generally the further you get from Datum Earth, the warmer they become. Evolution seems to be fairly universal too. Homo sapiens are unique, although hardly the only hominid, but evolution will pretty much always throw up things that (broadly speaking) can be called fish, elephants, pigs, deer and dogs. The truly remarkable worlds are the ones where something very odd has happened, such as being entirely covered in water, lacking a moon, or showing evidence of an intelligent species descended from the dinosaurs. The book passes through well over two million new Earths, and I’d (probably) happily read a guidebook to each and every one of them.

There is so much going on here, and I’m already intrigued to continue the journey with the rest of the series.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll take a look!

“Galapagos” by Kurt Vonnegut (1985)

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“The thing was: One million years ago, back in A.D. 1986, Guayaquil was the chief seaport of the little South American democracy of Ecuador, whose capital was Quito, high in the Andes Mountains.”

Earlier this year, I made my way via book to the remote Falkland Islands. This time, I’ve schlepped across South America and disembarked on the Galapagos islands the other side. With Kurt Vonnegut as my guide, I should’ve realised that this was going to be odd, but it’s been a while since I’ve read him, and I’d forgotten just quite how strange he is.

Narrated by a ghost (who happens to be the son of Vonnegut’s recurring science fiction author Kilgore Trout), Galapagos spans the eons, taking in both the year 1986 when the economy crumbled and the world as we know it ended, and a million years later – the book’s present – where the only surviving humans live on the Galapagos Islands and have evolved to suit their new habitat. The new humans are descended from the tourists aboard the “Nature Cruise of the Century”, a planned tour to the islands that Darwin made famous that never quite lived up to expectations.

While the ship was originally planning to have such illustrious passengers as Jackie Onassis and Rudolf Nureyev, in the end there were just eleven people on board, including the captain, a retired schoolteacher, a con artist, a pregnant Japanese woman, a blind woman reliant on her father, and the last six members of the Ecuadorian Kanka-Bono tribe. The only other thing that survived the end of the world was Mandarax, a tiny marvel of electronics that can translate almost any language, recite thousands of literary quotes, and diagnose over a thousand diseases. As the humans evolve and adapt to their new way of life, the old ways of humanity with their society of big brains quickly fades into history, and the question is raised – are things better for it?

Vonnegut is of course one of the most wonderful writers of the last century, but as mad as a box of mushrooms. He’s on good form here, with a slightly daft premise that manages to bring up all the big topics regarding humanity and our dangerous brains. The non-linear structure works well and with the narrator existing a million years beyond most of the action, it allows him to give us the salient facts in the order he sees fit. When a character is due to die soon, they gain an asterisk before their name. At first this is sign-posted, but eventually it just happens without mention and you realise that another one is on their way out in the next few chapters.

Some of the activity is naturally far-fetched, such as the methods of artificial insemination used on the island, the speed of evolution (although arguably it is sped up thanks to nuclear fallout), the appearance of ghosts and the “blue tunnel” that leads to the afterlife, and the sheer number of rare and unusual illnesses contained inside the few survivors, but because it’s Vonnegut it still works. While he’s somewhat vague about what exactly happens to humanity in its isolation – aside from revealing that our descendants have small brains, flippers and fur – he spends a lot of time pointing out the insanity of our modern world and the damage our big brains have done to the planet and to one another. Vonnegut goes to far to state that all the problems of humanity were caused by “the only true villain in my story: the oversized human brain”. When natural selection decides that a slim, streamlined head is more use than an oversized cranium, the brain begins to shrink and humanity returns to the water.

Vonnegut also makes a big deal about the inter-connectivity of things. The smallest things have the biggest impacts on the future, with the narrator pointing out that had something trivial not happened, then the fate of the human race would have probably been entirely different. These can be anything from someone have a specific gene, or a mentally unstable soldier breaking into a particular shop. Everything is linked – so it goes.

An interesting and somewhat creepy look at an unlikely – but nevertheless potential – future of the planet.

“Electric Dreams” by Philip K. Dick (2017)

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“Commute ships roared on all sides, as Ed Morris made his way wearily home to Earth at the end of a long hard day at the office.”

I’ve always quite enjoyed Philip K. Dick’s work, but I tend to find it quite dense and not the sort of thing you can dip into. His mind was capable of creating some truly excellent, prescient creations, and they linger on your mental palate for a long time after you’re done. In an attempt to delve deeper into his work without having to lose myself in an entire novel, I picked up Electric Dreams, ten of his short stories that were recently adapted for TV. Although I didn’t see the series, in reading about it, there seem to have been a lot of changes made to the stories, with a number of them only having a central theme as the connecting link.

In typical Philip K. Dick fashion the stories explore ideas of technology, consumerism, capitalism, fear and a future that feels aeons away and yet also right around the corner. Here’s a quick summary of all the stories present.

In “Exhibit Piece”, a historian from the 22nd century enters into his exhibition of 20th century life, only to find that his wife and children are there waiting for him, and he begins to be unable to tell which version of reality is true – is he dreaming of the past or the future? In “The Commuter”, a man working for the trains is flummoxed when a customer asks for his regular ticket to Macon Heights, a town that doesn’t exist. Confused, he sets off on his own journey to find the impossible town, and perhaps stumbles into a whole new world.

In “The Impossible Planet”, an old woman’s dying wish is to be taken to the mythical planet of Earth, the legendary home of humanity. The only snag is that no one can be sure where it is or even if it ever existed, but some people will promise anything for money. In “The Hanging Stranger”, a man becomes disturbed when he sees a figure hung from a lamppost, and even more disturbed when he seems to be the only person in town who finds this odd. Realising that his town has been taken over, he flees, but he may just be leaping from the frying pan into the fire. In “Sales Pitch”, a domestic robot has an ingenious way of selling itself – it turns up in your house and doesn’t leave until you’ve bought it. This is all too much for one man, however, who has had enough of this world’s constant bombardment of advertisements.

“The Father-Thing” is easily the creepiest story in the collection, featuring a boy who discovers his father has been taken over by something very un-human, giving him a new personality. He rounds up an unlikely group of friends to help kill the impostor. In “The Hood Maker”, there has been a ban on privacy and a new race of mind readers have begun to control society. In “Foster, You’re Dead”, the fear of the Cold War is turned up to eleven, as a father refuses to cave to peer pressure to buy an underground bunker, and his son is desperate for his family to conform before it’s too late. In “Human Is”, a toxicologist journeys to a distant planet for work, only to return with an entirely new personality, leading to governmental involvement when it’s theorised his body has been taken over by an alien refugee. Finally, “Autofac” features humans in a post-apocalyptic America trying to break the new technology so they can return to a simpler time and take over their own lives.

It wouldn’t be a review of a short story collection if I didn’t say that this is an uneven collection of hits and misses. Some of them, such as “The Commuter” are gripping and fascinating, but others, “Autofac”, for example, are quite dull. The best story to my mind is “The Impossible Planet”, as the ending gave me a proper chill up my spine. It’s one of those stories where not much happens, but it’s all the more compelling for that. “Foster, You’re Dead” is also really good, as it plays on consumer culture using extremes. It posits that now everyone has got a car and a television, capitalism still needs to function, so it does so through fear, and every time the population buys the latest bomb shelter, the media will almost immediately announce a new threat that will require the purchase of an upgrade, or even a whole new machine that’s twice as powerful as the last one. It’s pretty much exactly what we see with smartphones.

The main characters are pretty much all men, with women relegated to the role of housewife for the most part, but these stories were all written in the fifties when times were different and gender roles were drawn clearly. The stories, while prescient, do have that feeling of a future devised by the people from the past. We’re all familiar with what people used to think the future would look like – an occasional term for this is zeerust – and many of these tropes are played out here, with personal robots, constant advertising, and efficient interplanetary travel.

It’s not often I read the same genre twice in a row, but that’s two dystopian futures down in quick succession. I’m sure it won’t harm me to much to go for a third…

“Ape And Essence” by Aldous Huxley (1948)

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ape“It was the day of Gandhi’s assassination; but on Calvary the sightseers were more interested in the contents of their picnic baskets than in the possible significance of the, after all, rather commonplace event they had turned out to witness.”

Aldous Huxley is almost certainly best remembered for his dystopian novel Brave New World, but he churned out several books on his lifetime. I confess though that until recently I couldn’t have named another one. I stumbled upon Ape and Essence a few weeks ago, received it for my birthday yesterday, and finished it today. It’s a short one, but interesting and engaging. It all begins with a man called William Tallis.

Tallis is a scriptwriter, and when two Hollywood writers find a copy of his film script, the titular Ape and Essence, in a pile of scripts ready to be destroyed, they are intrigued and decide to seek him out, only to find that they are too late – Tallis is dead. This is all we know of these characters, as they merely serve as a framing device for the rest of the novel which is actually the film’s script, presented without annotations, footnotes or edits.

Tallis’s story takes place in 2108, a century after the planet was destroyed by nuclear weapons in the Third World War. Our heroes are the crew of the Canterbury, a ship carrying the New Zealand Rediscovery Expedition. New Zealand, it turns out, was just about the only country to survive the war as, due to their remote location, no one ever thought them worth nuking. The ship arrives on the coast of what was once California. Botanist and mother’s boy, Dr Alfred Poole, encounters some of the natives, a tribe of humans who believe that the destruction was the fault of the Devil, whom they call Belial. They now live in a society where sex it outlawed, except on one day a year for breeding purposes, women are seen only as vessels for children, and any baby born with deformities (which is desperately common thanks to all the radiation in the atmosphere) is killed in a religious ceremony. Poole is soon caught up in their activities, but when he falls for one of the tribes women, he begins to hatch a plan.

The title of the novel comes from the vignettes that crop up in Tallis’s script. The film would apparently have featured several surreal moments where baboons are pictured as the dominant race, with scientists like Einstein and Pasteur kept on chains as mascots and pets. At first I thought that Huxley was introducing us to a Planet of the Apes scenario, and perhaps inspiration was taken from here for that film, but the scenes exist simply to show us that we humans are just as primitive and violent as the animals we claim to be beneath us. All societies will, after reaching a certain level of power and arrogance, destroy themselves. There are even suggestions that this new civilization that has built up will go on to do the same again to itself.

It’s primarily a satire of the way that humans continue to conduct war and kill off our own kind for, often, superficial reasons. Huxley had of course lived through both World Wars, so knew from experience how violent and evil our species can be. While not one of his more famous works, and containing a definite thread of pessimism throughout, it’s an interesting look at a world that, like all good dystopian novels, feels impossible and yet all too real.

“Man V. Nature” by Diane Cook (2015)

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manvnature“They let me tend to my husband’s burial and settle his affairs, which means that for a few days I get to stay in my house, pretend he is away on business while I stand in the closet and sell his clothes.”

The world is a weird place. The news is full of things that seem like they’ve been yanked from the pages of fiction, so when you stumble on a book now that seems weird, you know you’ve hit something good. Diane Cook’s collection of short stories, Man V. Nature, are smart and well-written, but above all are weird and unsettling in ways you can’t quite describe.

There are twelve stories here, and each of them is a weird mixture of superbly realistic, and insanely fantastic. More often than not, the backgrounds or specifics of what is happening in each world is never clearly explained. In “Marrying Up”, we are told only the world “got bad”. In “The Way the End of Days Should Be”, there are just two houses left and the rest of the world has flooded, but we don’t know how or why. The first story, “Moving On”, takes place in a world where widowed spouses are put into institutions until they’re wanted again by someone else, though they seem to have little say in who they get to marry. It’s reminiscent of works like The Handmaid’s Tale or Only Ever Yours, where women are still treated as chattel, although some men appear to be in the same position. In “Flotsam”, the oddness is more magical, as a woman begins to find baby clothes in among her washing, despite having no children.

“Flotsam” also seems to be about women’s sexuality, perhaps an acknowledgement of women’s body clocks. Similarly, “A Wanted Man” is about female sexuality too, although seems at first perhaps to be about male sexuality. It features a man who is irresistible to all women and will guarantee them a pregnancy with one fuck. All he wants is someone to love, and to love him back, and he seems to fall in love with every new woman he meets, though they are all uninterested in settling down.

“The Mast Year” is an interesting look at the world. In it, the main character finds herself promoted and engaged in quick succession, and people begin to gather around her home, setting up tents and caravans, burrowing into her lawn, and climbing her trees. Her mother says that she’s experiencing a mast year. This references when a tree produces more fruit than usual, so people gather around it. Jane’s recent luck works as a magnet and the people are gathered around her in the hope that some of that luck rubs off on them. It feels like an extreme version of how we advertise ourselves on social media when things are going well – if you go by Instagram, everyone is currently living their best life – and then what happens when things go wrong and we have to start revealing the truth behind the smiles.

The titular story, “Man V. Nature” is about three men stuck in a rubber dinghy on an endless lake, with barely any food left and no protection from the scorching sun. Pretending that their predicament is a TV show, their bodies, brains and sanity wither away and they turn on one another and begin to reveal harsh secrets, and one of them learns that he’s not considered “one of the gang”, despite his desperate attempts to fit in.

Children are also common to several of the stories. “Somebody’s Baby” brings to life the fear new parents have that their child is in danger by making that danger a man who stands in your garden and, if you lose concentration for just one second, will enter your house and snatch your baby. The main question you’re left with at the end of that story is, “If you could suddenly get back everything you’d already said goodbye to, would you want it?” In another story, “The Not-Needed Forest”, several boys who society has deemed unneeded are sent to be killed but survive in a forest together instead, until the food supply runs low and they begin to compete with one another for survival.

Diane Cook has conjured up a shockingly brilliant collection of tales, each of them slightly unnerving and leaving you slightly unsure as to what just happened. There aren’t many answers, but to provide them would be to ruin the magic. Her stories contain something familiar, but are also like nothing you’ve ever read before. Haunting.

“Zoo” by James Patterson (2012)

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Not your average family day out.

Not your average family day out.

“Located in Griffith Park, a four-thousand-acre stretch of land featuring two eighteen-hole gold courses, the Autry National Center, and the HOLLYWOOD sign, the Los Angeles Zoo and Botanical Gardens is more of a run-down tourist attraction than a wildlife conservation facility.”

Do anything for long enough and you’ll find your words come back to bite your behind. Last year I read Witch & Wizard by James Patterson and detested it. I all but vowed to abandon Patterson and never try reading him again. You can see already how well that went down. I actually bought this book a few weeks after reading the last one, for which I blame the late arrival of my train at London Bridge that led me to wander into W H Smiths, and figured that if his writing for children didn’t appeal to me, his adult novels might.

Zoo seemed a simple enough premise, but that should’ve been all I needed to know. This is one of those thriller books churned out for the summer market; thin characterisation, short chapters and constant bursts of unlikely action. However, I’m not doing the book down entirely. It has flaws, but it’s not bad. First up, a summary of the plot.

This is the story of Jackson Oz, a biologist who has become concerned with the increasing number of animal attacks on humans over the last few years. Calling it HAC (Human-Animal Conflict), he has tried for years to convince politicians and mainstream scientists that something wrong is happening, but since he’s a college drop out who lives in New York with chimpanzee called Attila, people aren’t that fond of taking him seriously. He hears from a contact in Botswana who reports lions behaving in an odd manner, so he drops everything to head out to Africa in search of proof.

Out there, he gets the proof he’s after. Male lions are hunting in packs, something never before seen or even heard of before. And while Oz is dealing with the problems out there, back in America, Attila is going mental and more and more attacks, even from domesticated dogs, are happening. All mammals are turning against humans and it is only a matter of time before everyone feels like they’re at the end of days, with people only starting to listen to Oz after it might be too late.

OK, so the plot is simple enough – animals turn on humans, humans are unprepared – and the descriptions of the killings are pretty good and graphic. Animals tend to be gathering in swarms, and the images Patterson produces about great swirling mounds of dogs or rats are intense and disgusting, but oddly compelling. Patterson also does have a rather smart way with language, with some great descriptions, metaphors and the like that I’m jealous of. I actually am rather fond of the ending as well, which shows humans for what they really are and leads to the suggestion that, as I’ve always assumed, we’ll end up destroying ourselves.

It’s a quick read, very fast-paced, but sometimes so fast that the characters are left behind. Oz has a girlfriend at the start of the novel and, alright, she leaves him and is then killed, but after that happens, the novel skips ahead five years and we don’t get to see his mourning period, possibly because he’s just returned from Africa with a Frenchwoman he’s falling for. In the missing interim, they get married and have a son. Oz’s first girlfriend, Natalie, is never again mentioned, despite her gory death surely not being something he’s going to forget in a hurry.

Oz is supposed to be a genius, but he hits on his main idea due to a slightly contrived coincidence, and even I (someone with no scientific backing whatsoever but who does understand fairly well how stories work) hit on the cause of the problem about a hundred pages before any of the scientists did. Also, I remain stunned and bemused by the fact that, even though Oz knows animals are becoming more aggressive, he still insists on keeping a sodding chimpanzee in his apartment. There’s a couple of throwaway lines about how he’s attached to him, and he will eventually send him off somewhere he can be safe, but generally I think that if Oz was any sort of scientist, he would’ve got rid of that ape long before and saved himself a lot of trouble.

My other minor gripe is simply that we get to see lots of aggression and murdering from such animals as dogs, cats, rats, lions, leopards, bears, gorillas, rhinos, chimps, dolphins and wolves, but was it too much to ask for a frankly hilarious scene in which a family picnic is raided by a bloodthirsty pack of squirrels? I mean, the dolphins are a very nice touch, and even bats turn up at the end briefly, but come on, give me a murdering hamster or a rabbit with ideas of death and destruction.

It’s not necessarily a bad book, but some scenes are too forced, the characters are weak and Patterson seems to be phoning it in occasionally, like mentioning that the situation has been given the name ZOO, which is an acronym but apparently no one can remember what it stands for. Hmmm.

No promises, but I think this could be the end of my attempts with Patterson.

“The Humans” by Matt Haig (2013)

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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.