What is The Humans (2013) about? A short humorous novel about an alien who rushes to planet Earth because a professor is on the verge of cracking an important mathematical problem and the aliens don’t want that to happen. Our alien quickly inhabits the body of the professor to erase his discovery, but what the alien didn’t expect is that he now has to deal with living as a human, including the gross body of the professor, dealing with the professor’s family and all the baffling social customs.
Matt Haig is a popular British writer who’s output has had an interesting development over the years. In the first years of the 2000s he gained an audience with his adult and children’s books that had dark takes on family life. Then Haig turned to autobiographical self-help books about anxiety and depression, like Reasons to Stay Alive (2015) and Notes on a Nervous Planet (2018), gaining him a wider audience. At the same time, he turned towards science fiction, and his struggles with anxiety and depression informed the themes he chose to tackle there. His latest, The Midnight Library (2020), is about a depressed woman experiencing alternative takes on her life, much like Blake Crouch’s Dark Matter (2016) without the thriller parts.
One can immediately see how Haig’s preoccupation with anxiety and depression paved the way for a story like The Humans. The real story of this novel is holding up a mirror to our human behaviour, while the science fictional premise of an alien embodying a professor is wildly inconsistent and plainly just a setup. It’s science fiction for people who don’t normally read science fiction. The alien is there to point out highly irrational things, like: human conversations are rarely about what they really want to talk about. Humans do things to make themselves happy that actually make them miserable, like watching TV or like making their skin look mildly less old.
It starts off in a slapstick way, nothing too deep or introspective but funny enough. The alien learns English from a Cosmopolitan magazine, causes a ruckus and via a rocky road sinks into the life of Professor Andrew Martin. As the alien learns more about humans, his questions go from basic stuff like “why do they conceal their bodies behind clothes?” to “why do they conceal contempt behind smiles?” The novel starts to speak to readers who’ve felt like impostors in their life, had problems trying to fit in, or were rejected by culture. “Everything in human life was a test. That’s why they all looked so stressed out.“
At first, Haig keeps a perfect balance between comedy and poignancy. A darkly comedic tone hints at depression, while quotable nuggets of wisdom keep things interesting. Now, I can totally understand if this book rubs you the wrong way. Haig’s super sentimental story could come across as pretentious and would make for a mediocre romcom starring Simon Pegg, like Hector and the Search For Happiness (2014) or Absolutely Anything (2015).
Stories like these are often predictable, yet I never felt a lack of originality in Haig’s writing. The story goes to much darker places than I expected. Unfortunately, it also gets buried under an avalanche of sentimental life lessons about love and feelings. As Haig’s true interests about mental health begin to float to the surface, the comedy drops away and the story becomes repetitive and dare I say boring. The character development is all in service to didactic goals for the readers.
I liked the first half but was slightly bored, bordering on annoyed, throughout the whole second half. The alien cannot be emotionally invested in and the mental health tidbits crowd out the comedy, leaving nothing but a self-help book on the level of a supermarket glossy. The alien listens to The Beach Boys and reads Emily Dickinson poetry and concludes that love is the key to the universe. The story couldn’t carry every bit of advice that Haig wanted to squeeze into it so he lets the alien conclude the story by giving a bullet point list of everything he’d learned.
I had higher hopes, but it is what I feared it would be.