** Beware of spoilers **
The 2023 Book Club started with The Humans by Matt Haig.
After a lackluster end to 2022, I was eager to get back to traditional sci-fi material. The last two reads were a graphic novel and a Harlan Ellison selection, and I opted out of reading them. January’s read, The Humans, didn’t disappoint. Though it wasn’t quite sci-fi in the conventional sense according to my definition.
Author Matt Haig’s interpretation of “an alien corrupted by humans” trope is only sci-fi because the protagonist is an alien. Otherwise, the story takes place on Earth circa 2013 or thereabouts. Hence, no created world to immerse oneself in. We learn a little about the alien’s world, but it’s only used as a device to contrast his species and humans. In particular, human hope and redemption touted by the book blurb. Though I felt it was more about human emotion, a foreign concept to the leading alien.
Considering the author’s mental breakdown in his twenties, his exploration of the human condition in this novel could be interpreted as a therapy session. Humans are indeed quirky. Knowing and understanding one’s own eccentricity is healthy but sometimes hard to accept. Especially if it doesn’t neatly fit into the societal norm. After all, humans desire to be accepted. A club member thought the characters reflected the author’s various states of mind. An astute observation, but I’m far too literal to get to this viewpoint on my own.
The group described the writing as humorous, amusing, and more literary than most sci-fi. It was an easy and short read. It’s about 285 pages, which was, more likely than not, the reason I finished the book. Likewise, the pacing kept the plot moving forward. Another positive for me because I’ll stop turning the page if nothing is happening. In writer parlance, the beats of a story have purpose and are meaningful.
For some, the story tested their patience. To this point, it lacked tension and conflict. The alien was rather deadpan. Initially, he reacted to the humans with disgust. He found the contrasts to his own species appalling. Though his reactions weren’t over the top or anything, which made sense considering that he was devoid of emotion. So, in general, it worked for this character.
Logically, it seemed like it was up to the human characters to create the tension. Yes and no. While their emotional temperaments animated their reactions, they didn’t quite hit the mark for me. While they weren’t flat, I don’t think they were fully developed either. They were off for me because the book is written in first person, and readers only see the human characters through the eyes of an emotionally detached alien.
Perhaps, the lack of conflict influenced my assessment. I didn’t feel there was enough at stake. It was mentioned, but it wasn’t a very elaborate explanation. Nor were the consequences of the alien failing his mission put forth. There was minimal reflection of what would happen if the alien failed. Another subtlety of first-person POV. As a result, the conflict lacked depth, leaving me a little underwhelmed. Though it wasn’t bothersome enough to pull me out of the story. I kept turning the pages.
Plenty of the material challenged my suspension of disbelief. In particular, the alien’s transformation. It was a bit too easy, probably because I couldn’t get a read on the passage of time. Though it was mentioned, it didn’t seem to take very long for the alien to become corrupted by our species. Indeed, human emotion is powerful, but is it strong enough to sway an interstellar traveler so easily? Compelling and influential enough to convince an alien to forsake his own species and world? I’m not quite sure, but oddly, this perceived weakness didn’t get in the way of the story. I turned the pages.
Another challenge included the wife and son’s acceptance of the alien’s true identity. Again, it was a little too easy. It circles back to the lack of tension due to the first-person narrative. Yet at this point of the story, the alien is more human than ever, and there’s nothing more human than the stages of acceptance (the same as grief). It would’ve seemed natural for the alien to have his own revelation. Learning how humans work their way through the process. A perfect conclusion to a person’s journey to accepting who they are and their place in life. Instead, the alien leaves the family to start another life someplace else. Though he eventually returns when Alien Andrew and Isabela decide to revisit their relationship. For me, a little anticlimactic for an ending of a story.
My favorite part of the book was the alien’s advice for humans. Many of the philosophies resonated with me. One that stuck in my mind was #61 – just because you can doesn’t mean you should. But did there need to be 97 points? 25-50 would have been sufficient. A group member pointed out that 97 was the alien’s favorite prime number. Got it. Although I didn’t make the connection, I’m sure it did with others and resonated with them. Something to consider in my own writing since I use a lot of symbolism. Many won’t get it, but it will add more depth to the story for those who do.
Contrary to the noted shortcomings, I enjoyed the book and might even consider rereading it. I might get more from it the second time after such deliberate contemplation. As is, I’m on the fence about whether it earned a physical spot on my bookshelf. If it had been written in third person limited, I think it would have been added to my collection without a doubt. This point of view would have allowed the human characters to be humans. That is emotionally driven. Likewise, the alien’s deadpan demeanor and his transformation would have been more poignant. What do you think?
Next up: Light from Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki.
Until then, happy reading!