Matt Haig was once a very promising writer, who decided that he wanted to become a very popular writer. Once upon a time his books were based on Henry IV and Hamlet. Now, he seems to be channeling Tony Parsons via the writers of Red Dwarf. The premise of The Humans is pretty simple. A Cambridge academic called Andrew Martin has solved a mathematical puzzle which could significantly speed up the rate of human scientific progress. This worries the Vanadoorians, who decide to send one of their number down to replace Martin, body-snatcher style, and wipe out all traces of the discovery. This will require the elimination of Martin’s wife, son and friends.
Would you believe it, though, the Vanadoorian they send down begins to feel pity for his victims, listens to some Beach Boys, reads a bit of Emily Dickinson, and decides that these illogical, flawed, occasionally violent and comparatively primitive beings aren’t as bad as they are cracked up to be. He proves more caring than the man he replaced, attempting to bond with his wayward ‘son’ and providing his ‘wife’ with a bit of help around the house for once.
The story is dull and predictable enough, but it is the writing that really grates. Haig employs a tone of understatement laced with vague pessimism, straight out of Douglas Adams. Humans are ‘a bipedal lifeform living a largely deluded existence on a small waterlogged planet’. They are always ‘doing things that make themselves miserable, [like] writing a semi-autobiographical novel’. Unfortunately, the trick of explaining everyday items as if for the first time gets tired very quickly – there are only so many times you can read descriptions of ‘a chemically-pulped tree derivative known as paper’ and so on.
In the interests of balance, there are occasional humorous asides (humans have invented ‘things they have no idea how to handle – the atomic bomb, the internet, the semi-colon’), and Haig writes about football reasonably well (‘to support… was to support the idea of failure’), but this is scant consolation for having to read a book where an immortal, infinitely logical entity is taught to understand love by a dog, as usual. As the Vandoorian spends more time with humans, he becomes duller and duller, taking on the spirit on an office bore. This outsider’s view on the work-life balance in the 21st century? ‘There was only really one fun day… because Monday was too close to Sunday’.
The third act does incorporate some greater drama, and even a bit of emotional depth as Andrew is forced to choose between his adopted family and his home planet, but this is undercut by the feeling that it has been written with one eye on a screen adaptation. By the time the alien has written ‘97 pieces of advice for a human’ (yes, he does list all 97, across four pages) I was ready to give up. I suppose I should be grateful that he didn’t find room for ‘always wear sunscreen’ among his useful pointers.
If The Humans spices its text up with references to far-off galaxies and advanced technologies, it can’t disguise how essentially hackneyed the plot is. A distant, career-obsessed father attempts to undo the damage he has done to his family. His wife, who shelved her ambitions to raise his family, and his son, who acts up in order to step out from his shadow, initially welcome this change, but is it sustainable, or will he finally lose everything? And is a career as a leading mathematician really as satisfying as sharing a peanut butter sandwich with your loyal pet dog?
Haig is clearly aiming his book at the burgeoning geek market, just as his previous book The Radleys cashed in on the craze for vampire fiction. Maths is cool now, so the that’s what the protagonist does. Red Dwarf is back on telly, so lower-middle brow intergalactic existentialism is on the menu again. The worst thing is that this will probably sell loads, and more writers will be encouraged to abandon originality in search of sales. Please don’t let it happen.
Any Cop?: The cover blurb says that The Humans will appeal to fans of Kurt Vonnegut. I can only say that this optimism is admirable but hopelessly misplaced.