Thursday, October 18, 2018

Book Review: 'The Humans' by Matt Haig

Review by Susan Grigsby

There is only one genre in fiction. The genre is called “book.”

Or so says Andrew Martin, the protagonist in Matt Haig's Edgar Nominated book, The Humans. That this book was nominated in the Best Novel category of the 2014 Edgars would lead one to think that it is, in fact, a mystery. At least the Mystery Writers of America appear to have concluded it is one.
I'm not so sure. It does follow some of the conventions of the genre, including the fact that there is a murder. It is the story of an assassin, which Frederick Forsyth demonstrated in The Day of the Jackal, can make a gripping thriller. Lawrence Block's Hit Man, John Keller, stars in a series of short stories and novels about a traveling assassin.

I enjoy cross-over or mixed genre mysteries, like Douglas Adams' Dirk Gently series or Isaac Asimov's Caves of Steel mysteries. One of my favorites was Marcus Sakey's Brilliance, which was also nominated this year for an Edgar for best paperback original. But those are clearly mysteries, set in a different time or place, but mysteries all the same.
The Mystery Writers of America should know what makes a mystery and in this case, I am happy to defer to their judgement. Because The Humans, mystery or not, is a delight to read.
The Humans
by Matt Haig
Published by Simon & Schuster
July 2nd 2013
304 pages

In a galaxy far, far, far, far, far away, there is a super-advanced race of Vonnadorians who know that the secret to the universe is locked in the mathematics of Prime Numbers. When a human mathematician, Andrew Martin of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, proves the Riemann hypothesis (which, by the way, is a very real thing and has remain unproven since its creation in 1859) the Vonnadorians send a secret assassin to destroy him and any traces of his proof.  
To allow humans, "real bipedal life forms of midrange intelligence, living a largely deluded existence on a small, waterlogged planet in a very lonely corner of the universe," access to the Riemann hypothesis proof would be dangerous to the entire universe and must be prevented at all costs. And so our protagonist travels to Earth, kills Andrew Martin and assumes his identity, as well as his body, to track down anyone with whom Martin may have shared his knowledge. And kill them as well. All traces must be destroyed.
Unfortunately, he knows nothing of Earth or human customs, when he is transported to the middle of a highway in England instead of the office to which he should have been delivered. Naked. Fortunately, he soon has access to a Cosmopolitan magazine from which he learns that orgasms "were an incredibly big deal."
After his initial missteps land him in a psych ward, he begins to see humans as something other than creatures of delusion who present a grave threat to the cosmos. Just like John Keller in Hit Man, he begins to see some value in settling down on a planet like this one, with Martin's wife, Isobel, and teenaged son, Gulliver. And his English springer spaniel, Newton.
The only problem is that he has a job to do and the wife and son must die.
So although there is a mystery/thriller premise, the book is mostly devoted to observing the human condition. Haig is a talented enough writer that looking over Martin's shoulder is a pleasure, regardless of which genre is assigned to the work. And even though it has been done before, frequently, Haig manages to produce a tale that feels very modern and refreshingly, surprisingly, gentle. His observations are sprinkled throughout the book:
What humans didn’t know about architecture or nonradioactive isotopic helium-based fuels, they more than made up for with their knowledge of clothes.
Humans, as a rule, don’t like mad people unless they are good at painting, and only then once they are dead.
And one of my favorites:
Yes, there are lots of questions. And even more books. So, so many. Humans in their typical human way have written far too many to get through. Reading is added to that great pile of things— work, love, sexual prowess, the words they didn’t say when they really needed to say them— that they are bound to feel a bit dissatisfied about.
Towards the end of the novel, Martin sits down and types a list of advice for his teen-aged son. And while some appear to be designed for poster art,
29.   If there is a sunset, stop and look at it. Knowledge is finite. Wonder is infinite.
65.   Don’t think you know. Know you think.
67.   War is the answer. To the wrong question.
Some have more heft:
16.   Tragedy is just comedy that hasn’t come to fruition. One day we will laugh at this. We will laugh at everything.
19.   Read poetry. Especially poetry by Emily Dickinson. It might save you. Anne Sexton knows the mind, Walt Whitman knows grass, but Emily Dickinson knows everything.
42.   In a thousand years, if humans survive that long, everything you know will have been disproved. And replaced by even bigger myths.
47.   A cow is a cow even if you call it beef.
Whether this book should be filed under Science Fiction, Mystery, Fiction or Literature is beyond me. I am grateful that the MWA included it in this year's nominations though, as they gave me an excuse to read it and to write about it. It is an easy read, and a fast three hundred pages filled with truths that you already (always) knew, but that still have the power to enchant.

Editor's note: This review was originally published at the Daily Kos, which notes that its "content may be used for any purpose without explicit permission unless otherwise specified." The original page can be found here. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.