Haig confronts a vast and indifferent universe with the charm and audacity our race is known for. Uncomfortable with apathy and meaningless existence, humans tend to cherish the notion that a loving God deliberately created us, then wonder why God doesn’t give up on us and start over. The answer—“God is crazy in love with us!”—goes back at least 700 years, when Italian mystic Saint Catherine of Siena proclaime d that God simply fell in love with his creation in spite of all our failings. This is the revelation that plagues our alien protagonist in The Humans. Incarnated as a man, he is sent from a galaxy far, far away, not to save humanity, but to save the universe from us. An English mathematician has solved a great math riddle, and if this knowledge isn’t swiftly erased, humans will spread into outer space faster than European invaders were driven by Manifest Destiny. The alien’s job is simple: kill a few humans, come home again. However, like St. Catherine’s God, the alien is soon smitten with us. And if he doesn’t get the job done, another alien will.
The alien’s home planet is a Utopia of immortal beings whose only god is math. Their sketchy rulers, The Host, sound like earth’s heartless communist regimes. Their devotion to prime numbers has never been polluted by poetry, Australian wine, peanut butter and The Beach Boys, so the idea of their assassin abandoning his Earthly mission and giving up immortality for the aches and pains of a short human life is, well, so alien, they just didn’t anticipate it.
Our nameless hero assumes the identity of Professor Andrew Martin, who was already captured and killed before the story opens. The chosen alien has morphed into a body identical to Martin’s and traveled light-years to Earth. Like the comic Mr. Bean of British television, he arrives naked as a newborn on the busy streets of Cambridge. He’s equipped with surprisingly little information on how humans dress, communicate and behave. Luckily he’s a speed reader, so he does some catch-up research at a magazine rack. Unluckily, the latest issue of “Cosmopolitan” is his first source of information about humans. The expected scenes of chaos and confusion occur as Haig employs the ironic humor of “unreliable narrator” and various tropes of science fiction to introduce our displaced alien.
Haig skips the science fiction tradition of world-building. How did a society light-years away find out about a human’s mathematical discovery, and what makes them fear that humans will conquer the universe with it? Kill the man and the knowledge today, but those pesky humans are sure to figure it all out in another generation or century, so why not just kill all humans now? Never mind: the point of the novel is to show that humans have redeeming virtues; the setup is secondary. The alien’s marvelous technology is an echo of ET’s, but what matters is the alien’s willingness to give up his powers in order to be fully human. Ancient Egyptians, the gods of Olympus, even Jesus set a precedent for that. Worse than the “cup” of dying on the cross, though, are the alien’s orders from above to murder his own family and anyone else who has knowledge of his Earth-shattering mathematical breakthrough. Better to suffer and die alone than to see our loved ones harmed, right? This is where Haig hooks the reader.
However implausible the imposter’s presence may be, the way he becomes attached to his intended victims endears us to him. Everything about us is new, diverting, delightful. Our coffee is terrible, to him, but wine, hey, and Emily Dickinson, wow! Even the suspicious dog comes to love the alien, who is so much nicer than that awful Andrew Martin was. And, in spite of ourselves, we applaud the insights of our alien as he comes to love those simple, daily details that distinguish us as humans.
Hailed as science fiction with the “brilliance” and insight of Vonnegut, this novel is very readable, engaging and emotionally honest. Page after page of observations about humans ring true, even if we’ve heard it all before, or something similar. After following the author on Facebook and Twitter, though, I’ve come to appreciate his genius for generating memes. How many pithy quotes a day can one man invent? He has a list of advice for humans, and it can be viewed on YouTube, with fans of the novel reciting lines from the novel: Haig is writing a screenplay of “The Humans” for producers of the Harry Potter movies. It’s sure to charm millions of humans. We know our flaws; what we want to know is how to love ourselves in spite of them. The alien shows us.