Apr 17, 2021 - 5 minutes
When I was about 15, I contemplated “turning into” an alien (or a robot, or a robot alien) forever. I would act like one for the rest of my days, and people would either believe me and leave me alone, or they would not believe me and leave me alone. I practiced my speech and movements in front of a mirror—it was all about removing the emotions from my personhood and not having to deal with anything human. I’m not sure why I didn’t go through with it, although some of my previous partners might tell you that I, in fact, did.
And that brings us to this book. It was a light, fun, read. It’s about an alien who visits Earth on a mission, takes the place of another human being, and tries to figure out its way around human personality and culture. I was reminded, at least briefly, of the introduction to Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. A good start.
I’ve always enjoyed the exploration of human behavior and customs from an alien perspective, and so I was quick to finish the book. I was also deeply disappointed. There were great bits, but overall it came off as a book that was trying too hard to be cute and profound, without accomplishing either of those things very well. There were beautiful moments in this story, but that’s all they were—beautiful moments.
In some places, the writing came off as a little lazy. For instance, the alien at times struggled with carrying out simple human tasks, and in the next moment was able to ride a bicycle as if their home planet was filled with them. I know this sounds trivial, but this is just one example, and I’m bothered by science fiction stories that are inconsistent about such core elements.
In another instance, one of the characters references evolutionary biology in making a point, and then gets the science wrong. Five minutes on Google would’ve helped prevent this blunder; The Selfish Gene may be unfortunately named, but it is about the selfishness of individual genes, not genes for selfishness, or genes that give rise to selfish organisms.
Do I sound like a bitter gatekeeper now? I truly hope not, but if I do, well; this is a pile of rubber tires and genetic material I’m willing to die next to.
The section I found most discomforting, however, was a list of 100 statements in a chapter called “Advice for a human”. I highlighted the first 10 of them, which I suppose means they were noteworthy, but a large part of it felt forced, and ended up sounding like pseudo-profound nonsense. Some of it veered into Deepak Chopra territory, which is troubling.
I’m not sure why, as I write this, I feel an increasing sense of resentment towards this book, even though I enjoyed reading it. (I hope this isn’t how I sound when I talk about my relationships.) I had high expectations, that’s for sure, and I constantly compared it to other stories I’ve read, which I know isn’t fair. Part of me feels like this is the book I’ve always wanted to write, and I’m angry that this author did not do a very good job. That, too, is unfair.
I respect Matt Haig, and I know he’s brought a lot of hope to plenty of people. I admire the fact that he’s put himself out there, scars and all, and I have a lot to learn from humans like him.
And I think that is partly the issue with The Humans. It’s a somewhat autobiographical self help book pretending to be a science fiction novel, and that’s just not my cup of Bahgol.
“Their conversation topics are very rarely the things they want to be talking about, and I could write ninety-seven books on body shame and clothing etiquette before you would get even close to understanding them.”
“Also, orgasms, I realized, were an incredibly big deal. It seemed orgasms were the central tenet of life here. Maybe this was the only meaning humans had on this planet. Their purpose was simply to pursue the enlightenment of orgasm. A few seconds of relief from the surrounding dark.”
“I do not like wearing clothes,” I said, with quite delicate precision. “They chafe. They are uncomfortable around my genitals.” And then, remembering all I had learned from Cosmopolitan magazine, I leaned in toward them and added what I thought would be the clincher. “They may seriously hinder my chances of achieving a tantric full-body orgasm.”
“Where we are from there are no comforting delusions, no religions, no impossible fiction. Where we are from there is no love and no hate. There is the purity of reason.”
“A human life is on average 80 Earth years or around 30,000 Earth days. Which means they are born, they make some friends, eat a few meals, they get married, or they don’t get married, have a child or two, or not, drink a few thousand glasses of wine, have sexual intercourse a few times, discover a lump somewhere, feel a bit of regret, wonder where all the time went, know they should have done it differently, realise they would have done it the same, and then they die. Into the great black nothing. Out of space. Out of time. The most trivial of trivial zeroes. And that’s it, the full caboodle. All confined to the same mediocre planet.”
“This was the species whose main excuse for not doing something was ‘if only I had more time’. Perfectly valid until you realised they did have more time. Not eternity, granted, but they had tomorrow. And the day after tomorrow. And the day after the day after tomorrow. In fact I would have to write ‘the day after’ thirty thousand times before a final ‘tomorrow’ in order to illustrate the amount of time on a humans hands.”
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