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The Humans

By Matt Haig

Simon & Schuster

282 pages, $25

By Michael D. Langan

NEWS BOOK REVIEWER

Being a “visitor to a strange world” is an enduring traveler’s trope and it is carried out successfully in Matt Haig’s novel, “The Humans.”

Remember Jonathan Swift’s 1735 “Gulliver’s Travels” with Gulliver washed ashore among the Lilliputians and George Bailey’s guardian angel Clarence, earning his wings in the 1946 film, “It’s a Wonderful Life”?

This plot device is also as new as this summer’s Superman flick, “Man of Steel,” the story “of a young man’s sense of not belonging” – given his genesis on Krypton and afterlife on earth.

So it is no stretch to catch the implied “distance” in the title, “The Humans.” It indicates the cold reporting of an alien being among us to his planet’s authorities.

The intruder to our world is a Vonnadorian, constrained by spatial considerations and the wearing of clothing, both foreign accoutrements in his native Vonnadoria.

On earth he is impersonating a Cambridge mathematician, Professor Andrew Martin, whom he has killed. The professor has made a breakthrough calculation concerning prime numbers that the Vonnadorians do not like. They think the discovery will bring our civilization, comparative dross, closer to their superior world.

As background there is a brief chapter to explain primes. They have an apparently random pattern as they thin out. In 1859, Bernhard Riemann explained that there was a pattern, at least for the first 100,000 or so primes. A “zeta function,” it was called, and the prime problem, along with Fermat’s Last Theorem and the Poincaré Conjecture were among the last and most important mathematical problems to solve, Haig explains.

Our Vonnadorian knows all this. He is sent to knock off the entire Martin family in order to remove every trace of the threat to their superior civilization. On arrival he is disgusted by the way we humans look, by what we eat, and marvels at our capacity for murder and war as well as our concepts of love and family.

The fake Professor Martin describes us thusly: “…a human is a real bipedal life form of midrange intelligence, living a largely deluded existence on a small, waterlogged planet in a very lonely corner of the universe.”

He also describes an earth-dwelling animal, the cow, this way: “… a domesticated and multi-purpose ungulate, which humans treat as a one-stop shop for food, liquid refreshment, fertilizer and designer footwear. The humans farm it and cut its throat and then cut it up and package it and refrigerate it and sell it and cook it.”

From a foreign perspective, the activities that humans undertake can seem strange, especially when described with a clinical coldness. Haig milks the last drop of this draught before changing our Vonnadorian’s perspective. At first cold and descriptive, he comes to like, and then to love Dr. Martin’s wife, Isobel and son, Gulliver. This course of action is far from what he was sent to earth to do.

And from here the rest of the book is the development of the conflict between what he was sent to do and his warming up to the human condition. He becomes “infected with emotion” and the recognition that we are the way we are – and at our best – lovable. Love conquers even our Vonnadorian.

In the end, he does not complete his task of killing the rest of the family. Because he refuses his masters, he is made to become human. The result is that another doppelganger is sent from Vonnadoria and there is a scene between the two faux Andrew Martins that is the climax of the novel.

“The Humans” helps us find our way back to ourselves, to reconcile us to us. It does this by enabling us to see – through a visitor’s eyes – that we are our brother’s keeper if we have the love to do it. The astronomer Carl Sagan put it another way: “For small creatures such as we the vastness is bearable only through love.”

Choose this as your narrative or beware of embodiments of close relatives with evil designs.

The Humans

By Matt Haig

Simon & Schuster

282 pages, $25

Michael D. Langan is a frequent News reviewer of fiction