by Matt Haig
Hardcover, 304 pg.
Simon & Schuster, 2013
Read: Feb. 4-6, 2014
A couple of years back, I remember enjoying Haig’s The Radley’s about a family of vampires who’ve stopped feeding on humans, and have (mostly) assimilated into everyday society. It was fun, quirky, and had a lot more to offer than I’d have guessed. So when I stumbled onto this at the library, I had to grab it (and shame on me for not keeping an eye out for more by him).
The concept’s pretty simple: a brilliant mathematician has just made a break-through that puts humanity far, far ahead of where an alien race thinks they ought to be in terms of development based on how emotional and violent we are as a race. So, they send one of their own to kill him, take on his form and eradicate any and all people who might have knowledge of this breakthrough. Along the way, said assassin starts to understand and even appreciate humanity’s quirks and tries to stop the killing. Along the way we are treated to his observations about humanity. For example,
…I was able to work out that what humans may have lacked in physical attractiveness, they made up for in gullibility. You could tell them anything in a convincing-enough voice and they would believe it. Anything, of course, except the truth.
Basically, the key rule is, if you want to appear sane on Earth, you have to be in the right place, wearing the right clothes, saying the right things, and only stepping on the right kind of grass.
Or this description of browsing a bookstore:
Understandably, humans need to know what kind of book they are about to read, because time is money and money costs time and there’s no time like the present and all of that. They need to know if it is a love story. Or a murder story. Or a story about aliens. Perhaps the book they have in their hands is a war story. It wouldn’t be a surprise.
There are other questions too that humans have in bookstores. Such as, is it one of those books they read to feel clever, or one of those they will pretend they never read in order to stay looking clever? Will it make them laugh or cry? Or will it simply force them to stare out of the window watching the tracks of raindrops? Is it a true story? Or is it a false one? Is it the kind of story that will work on their brain or one which aims for lower organs? Is it one of those books that ends up acquiring religious followers or getting burned by them? Is it a book about mathematics or — like everything else in the universe — simply because of it? And also, of course, there is the ultimate, all-important questions: does it have a dog in it?
(amen to that last question)
A lot of these observations reminded me of the classic article, “Body Ritual among the Nacirema,” that social science undergrads have chuckled at for decades. And, at a point they got a little tired — but by the point that the book threatened to become an endless series of “here’s another way humans are odd” riffs, the story took over, and the characters became more than a collection of quirks. Which isn’t to say that the alien stopped having the observations, they were just mixed in with enough plot and character development that they became seasoning.
Another danger for the reader is that you could easily get so busy chuckling at things like a partial list of inventions that humans don’t know how to handle: “the atomic bomb, the Internet, the semicolon”; or the observation that a cat “was very much like a dog. But smaller, and without the self-esteem issues.” that you can let the poignant and thoughtful things slip by. This was not unlike Scalzi’s Redshirts in that way (it was on my mind because I was reading this when the news was released about the Redshirts TV adaptation).
Funny, moving, profound (not as profound as it wants to be, I don’t think — but close), look at what it means to be human, what it means to live, to love and why we bother with any of it.