Book Club: The Humans

** 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 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, meaning 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!

Book Club: Year Zero

June’s Book Club selection was Year Zero by Rob Reid. (Yes, I’m a little behind with my reviews.) After my epic 600-page space adventure, I looked forward to a light and short read. Particularly, a story about the music industry. 

The premise of the story was rather quirky. Quite simply, the author is the founder of the music streaming service, Rhapsody and an attorney. The story is a parody about copyright infringement laws, particularly as it relates to a period in time when peer-to-peer filing sharing was a new technology. Some of us remember the days when dirt-poor college students were threatened with $250,000 fines and felony convictions punishable by up to five years in prison for downloading music from the Internet. The first highly publicized case, Metallica v. Napster, Inc.

There are a ton of references to popular music like the protagonist’s name is Nick Carter as in the Backstreet Boy. A receptionist named Barbara Ann, a nod to the Beach Boys’ 1965 hit and recently revived by the Minions as the Banana Song. Aliens named Carly and Frampton. Some quips were wildly entertaining, but a little goes a long way.

Almost all Book Club readers lost interest in the story towards the middle. Also, some of the characters introduced weren’t fully developed. At first, it seemed like they were going to be an intricate part of the story, but trailed off and eventually disappeared. Finally, the author uses footnotes throughout the narrative. Small passages of explanation, which most readers felt took them out of the story. They distracted them.

Overall, a fun read especially if you are a music lover. Just know that it’s a satirical look at the music streaming industry, so don’t go into it thinking there’s going to be some profound theme. There’s no huge take-away from it other than how lucrative frivolous lawsuits can be. The take-away for me was how Metallica and other musicians lost in the end anyway since they make only pennies on the dollar from streaming services.

Up next for July is A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine:

Ambassador Mahit Dzmare arrives in the center of the multi-system Teixcalaanli Empire only to discover that her predecessor, the previous ambassador from their small but fiercely independent mining Station, has died. But no one will admit that his death wasn’t an accident—or that Mahit might be next to die, during a time of political instability in the highest echelons of the imperial court.

Now, Mahit must discover who is behind the murder, rescue herself, and save her Station from Teixcalaan’s unceasing expansion—all while navigating an alien culture that is all too seductive, engaging in intrigues of her own, and hiding a deadly technological secret—one that might spell the end of her Station and her way of life—or rescue it from annihilation.

Until next time, happy reading!