Saturday, May 2, 2015

Weird & Wonderful: The Humans by Matt Haig

Matt Haig's "The Humans" (2013) is the story of an alien sent to Earth to impersonate a mathematician who has solved the Riemann Hypothesis, in order to destroy all evidence of the solution. However, the mission goes awry when the complexity and emotional richness of the titular hoo-mans seduces our narrator. A fun though aggravating read, and a great discussion with City Lit's "Weird & Wonderful" book club.

Spoilers below!

Fun: our alien body-snatcher is decidedly non-humanoid, and Haig has a lot of fun playing with his disgust and ignorance of human bodies and customs. There are lots of little throw-away lines that made me laugh out loud, like the list of human inventions that are both potentially destructive and completely misunderstood (atomic power, the Internet, the semicolon) or the moment when he almost gasps when he hears his "mother" is getting a hip replacement made of titanium, "as the humans obviously didn't know about that yet" (115).

"You have achieved in disgrace
what I have always aspired to be."
Sick burn, Data.
These parts of the book were the strongest and most enjoyable for me. Of course, they're also in a long tradition of "alien/robot/outsider as a lens on our culture". The series "Mork and Mindy" (1978-82) came constantly to mind. There's also the sub-trope of the horror/humor of an outsider in a human body, which reminded me of the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Deja Q" (1990), and also Mallory Ortberg's "Erotica Written by an Alien Pretending Not To Be Horrified by the Human Body" (2015).

(Utter aside: watching "Deja Q", I was struck by how relatively good the science is. Yeah, there's some handwavium and silliness with Trek-tech as always, but a lot of the dialogue around the moon-orbit plot is actually correct, scientifically informed, and that's just crazy-rare today. Streaming on Netflix [season 3] right now if you're interested.)

Aggravating: two main things that really bothered me. First off, qua SF, this is really bad. I'm willing to let go of various nitpicky things (liquid nitrogen as a respiratory medium--COME ON, do your homework. Or the Vonnadarians' not taking into account that COMMON HOUSEHOLD ELECTRONICS INTERFERE WITH THEIR SUPERPOWER TECHNOLOGY), but there were constant gaps in the logic and consistency of the story-telling that broke my suspension of disbelief, making it hard to enjoy the story. Most egregious of these relate to our narrator's knowledge/ignorance of human affairs: there's no internal logic to what he knows or doesn't know in advance. He knows how to use human computers well enough to program viruses, for instance, but somehow didn't pick up that we have a taboo on public nudity. Haig is clearly using the "alien ignorance-as-a-lens" for comedy/satire/insight, but only when it suits him: within the world of the story, the inconsistency drove me to distraction.

Second point of aggravation: there were lots of bits of this book I liked. They're mostly drowned out by THE MESSAGE, which is HALLMARKY and INSIPID. Various reviews of "The Humans" referred to it as "heart-warming", which in my view is a big flashing danger sign. Starts out right on page 5:
It is about the meaning of life and nothing at all. It is about what it takes to kill somebody, and save them. It is about love and dead poets and wholenut peanut butter.
Barf-bag. This reaches its apotheosis in the chapter "Advice for a Human", which is LITERALLY just a 97-item list of all the lessons we have ALREADY LEARNED, phrased in the usual self-helpy method of "obvious things presented as wisdom" mixed with "goofy quirky things because isn't that so human LOL".

Alternate titles for "The Humans" include
"Tuesdays with Morrie & Mork & Mindy"
or "Chicken Soup for the Half-Vulcan Soul".
While this not his first published novel, Haig relates that it's the first novel he started to write after a mental breakdown. Knowing that puts a very different and allegorical spin on the novel. It's interesting, but doesn't redeem the book's clumsiness or heavy-handed preaching, for me at least--I find information about the author's life secondary to the writing itself. Also I can't help but remember a certain Tolkien quote:
I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence...I think that many confuse 'applicability' with 'allegory'; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author. (Foreword to second edition of "The Lord of the Rings", 1966).
And I bet you thought I could get through this review without bringing Tolkien in somehow.

However, we did talk about the book as an allegory or parallel to depression, nervous breakdowns, and recovery--particular the feeling of "alienation" from others, social mores, and one's own emotions and attachments.

We also talked for a bit about reading this as within the science fiction tradition versus not, and possible age-gap differences in reading "cynically" versus "sincerely". I really don't think those terms are accurate, hence the scare quotes. For those of critiquing the book--and I should be clear again that I think we all enjoyed the book, just with varying levels of frustration--we were more put off by the book's lack of subtlety, its tendency to tell rather than show, the repeated suspension-of-disbelief fails, and how generally unproblematic it all is.

Also adheres to the dictum
"better with a dog in it."
Part of my frustration is that "The Humans" is covering territory that has a lot of rich tropes and themes already explored in other works, and it doesn't go anywhere new or interesting with them. This book has a certain Vonnegut-like feel to it, and indeed "Slaughterhouse 5" (1969) is referenced fairly early on--but Vonnegut balances his humanist messages with his storytelling in a way that just doesn't happen here (we did acknowledge that pitting Haig against Vonnegut isn't exactly fair). We talked for a bit about variations of the "THANK YOU FOR TEACHING ME HOW TO LOVE, HUMAN" idea (by the way, there are some fantastic TV Tropes articles on this idea), as well as the "ill-prepared impersonator" plot used to humorous/insightful ends in things as diverse as the film "Dave" (1993, with Kevin Kline playing the president and his stand-in), the show "The Riches" (2007-2008, with Eddie Izzard and Minnie Driver), and, once we thought about it for a bit, Shakespeare--many of his comedies rely heavily on impersonation/mistaken identity.

"This heart symbolizes your
rejection of robotic
I'm really not a huge fan of the whole plot of "OUTSIDER LEARNS THAT OUR WAYS ARE THE BEST WAYS" which underlies "The Humans" and many similar stories. It denies difference and richness to the non-human characters, whatever they may be. It also tends to encourage the false "emotion versus logic" anti-intellectualism meme, with the supposedly-superior intellect of yer Spock-type constantly being trumped by the acts-from-the-heart, trusts-his-gut Kirk-type. I'm doing a paper at Wiscon on some related topics, so my sensitivity to this might be a bit heightened at the moment.

This works particularly well if the outsider (in "The Humans", the narrator and his Vonnadorian race) are so thinly-sketched that they basically represent a straw man: they're so weak and devoid of culture/emotion/richness that OF COURSE they would rather be human. Read with my cynicism dial turned up to 11, this is an allegory for assimilation--for diversities racial, sexual, neural etc. to CONFORM TO THE MAJORITY.

One of my favorite bits of Cherryh's "Foreigner" series (1994-) is the overt refutation of this idea--the atevi will never love or have friendship in the way humans do, because they have their own, different, rich reality. (And yes, you can now check Tolkien, Cherryh, and "There's a Trek example of this" off your Positron Bingo Board.)

Our last bit of criticism on "The Humans" revolved around consequences, or lack thereof: firstly, our narrator not only fails his mission (well, by his commanders' view, anyway), he actually kills the Vonnadorian who comes to finish the job. This seems like kind of a big deal! Yet he's apparently just...left alone? To do what he wants? Like they didn't even notice when the second agent never reported back in? (Each of those questions asked in an increasingly higher-pitched voice.) That our narrator chooses to continue the rather depressing job of suppressing the Riemann proof--dedicating his remaining career to basically just discouraging mathematicians in a move that reminded me of the "ignorance cults" in Greg Bear's "Distress" (1995, and a recent Chi-SF selection, btw)--doesn't jive with the whole argument that "actually humans are worthwhile, let's let them do their thing". We wondered how this book might have left a different impression on us if he'd actually given humans the proof. To bring it back to "this book seems unaware it's in a tradition", there's a whole sub-genre of SF about preventing humans gaining some bit of knowledge because it will bring about apocalyptic what-have-you; "The Humans" could have played with or at least engaged with that idea, but doesn't.
Double-whammy: robot learns meaning of tears,
destroys self to prevent humans learning how to make HIS OWN KIND.
But again: don't let all this criticism completely overshadow the book. There were lots and lots of moments in "The Humans" that made us laugh, and we thought the Martin family very well-developed. We were even quite impressed with the relationship with the dog, Newton, which could easily have come across as overly-cute and instead felt quite genuine.

If you're looking for some Vonnegut-like, but lighter, and if the epithet "feel-good" doesn't make you run for the hills, you might want to check it out.

Parting shot: all Emily Dickinson poems can be sung to the tune of "Gilligan's Island." Now you know.

Next time at Weird & Wonderful, we'll be reading Philip K. Dick's "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep" (1968), which should be fun! Wednesday, May 27th at 6:30pm. Details on this and other City Lit Book Clubs can be found on their website.

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