What does it mean to be human? According to Matt Haig, the precise definition lies somewhere between inevitable death and peanut butter sandwiches. This 2013 novel is both hilarious and sobering.
The Humans is narrated by an alien who has been sent to earth on an essential galactic security mission. I won’t give too much away, but it involves a groundbreaking mathematical discovery made by a Cambridge professor. The nameless alien in question has assumed the mathematician’s form in order to complete his task.
The novel begins with the following statement – “I know that some of you reading this are convinced that humans are a myth, but I’m here to state that they actually exist”. This detached perspective gives Haig a platform to provide a convincing and objective diagnosis of the state of human existence. In his own words, this was “the book that (he) always wanted to write” – a map for those perplexed by the absurdity of our confusing and often contradictory lives. This is certainly the kind of book to reframe perspectives, and I left it feeling that my vantage point had altered considerably.
Despite a multitude of poignant and insightful moments, The Humans is far from pretentious or overbearing. This is one of the only books that has consistently made me laugh throughout and, for all its scope, it maintains a light-heartedness even at the most serious moments. Those familiar with Haig’s non-fiction work will recognise the themes of depression and the accompanying search for hope that he has written about extensively.
Reasons to stay alive, for example, is a memoir written by Haig about mental health and surviving through it. Having suffered from both anxiety and depression, Haig is intimately acquainted with the darker aspects of human life. The experiences discussed in Haig’s memoir evidently shaped The Humans, but don’t define it. As Haig has said – this is a map for his younger self and others in similar positions.
Moving, hilarious and jarring in places: The Humans is all these things and more. It’s a celebration of humanity for all its imperfection, and from music to peanut butter sandwiches, Haig thoroughly convinced me that being human is a blessing, even if sometimes a rather melancholic one.
I would recommend The Humans to just about anybody, though as a physics student this struck many of the right chords. Mathematicians and scientists alike couldn’t find a more apt novel to start the year.