Paul Weller recently said that the thing he most deplored in himself was ’emotional cowardice’. I don’t think Matt Haig suffers from this. In The Humans Haig takes a good look at love of all sorts, plus loss, regret, fear and joy and asks: what does it really mean to be us? Good question. Cambridge mathematician Andrew Martin has solved the fabled Riemann hypothesis, thus unlocking many of the secrets of prime numbers. The problem is that the knowledge will inevitably catapult human development forward – deep space travel. thought communication, all that – and a superior intelligence has been keeping tabs on the Earth and not really liking what it sees anyway. They’ve obviously watched The Day The Earth Stood Still and know that all this technological advancement is only going to enable the humans’ violent proclivities to be magnified across galaxies. That can’t be allowed to happen. ‘This was a planet characterised by war and greed’, after all. After eliminating Andrew and taking over his body, the unnamed alien sent to Earth to sort this out also has to get rid of anyone else who has been told about the Riemann discovery. Easy…except that some humans are selfless and thoughtful. There is Andrew’s lovely, kind wife Isobel, for instance. There is his disaffected, mentally unstable, bright, lost teenage son Gulliver. There is also a wise dog. The mission turns out to be not so straightforward after all. I would guess Haig has absorbed lots of Douglas Adams and Kurt Vonnegut (the aliens are Vonnadorians, which seems unlikely to be a coincidence). There are holes all over the place in the plot of The Humans but Haig gets away with it because he understands – as we all do, deep down – that most stuff just doesn’t matter: what will survive of us is love*. No-one, on their death bed, asks for a 60-inch HD TV to be wheeled in so they can watch something before they snuff it. Instead, we want our loved ones around us and we don’t get tired of having this pointed out. The novel also sends you back to the poetry of Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, and to Prince’s Raspberry Beret. Nothing but good things, in short.
* Philip Larkin, misanthrope and curmudgeon, wrote that line. He should know.