Train journeys are a great way to crack on with a good book, so I looked forward to starting Matt Haig’s ‘The Humans‘ on the way to London. I soon remembered that crowded trains can be awkward places to be caught reading laugh-out-loud funny books!
When Cambridge professor Andrew Martin cracks a mathematical problem which could push human innovation forwards, he doesn’t realise he has endangered not only his life, but also that of his family. Other life-forms have been keeping an eye on the backwards Earth, and they fear this new breakthrough. The hapless Prof. Martin is abducted and replaced with a Vonnadorian who is tasked with doing away with anyone who knows the answer to the mathematical conundrum. So far, so schoolboy sci-fi.
Although the premise of the book may not be that original (alien lands on Earth, what does he make of it all?), the writing is. When the narrator (we don’t learn its name) first lands, he has no knowledge of language and so has to acquire it quickly. He grabs a copy of ‘Cosmopolitan‘ in a petrol station, leading him to conclude that the large, ornate buildings in Cambridge must be ‘temples to the orgasm’. Stuck in the professor’s body, the visitor negotiates life with his wife and son, with hilarious and sometimes touching results. His interactions with Gulliver (age 15) reminded me that our teenagers clearly do think their parents are aliens.
From an outsider’s point of view, earthlings are strange creatures with odd priorities. “They can drive a car 30 miles every day and feel good about themselves for recycling a couple of empty jam jars.” I have a feeling that some readers may find the observations a little trite and simplistic, but I thought it was a humorous take on what it is to be human, with more than a little truth in its explorations.
P.S. teenage boys are not an easy audience to engage when it comes to novels. ‘The Humans‘ might be a good choice for some of them. The last few pages include invaluable advice for Gulliver. I found it hard to choose my favourite maxims, but these work for me. And probably for teenage boys:
30. “Don’t aim for perfection. Evolution, and life, only happen through mistakes.”
67. “War is the answer. To the wrong question”
37. “Don’t always try to be cool. The whole universe is cool. It’s the warm bits that matter.”
93. “School is a joke. But go along with it, because you are very near to the punchline.”