Tom Hazard has a rare affliction: he ages incredibly slowly. Each year for him is more like fifteen for the rest of us. As a result, Tom, born in 1581, is still alive today looking as though he’s in his early forties.
Tom’s under the protection of a shady sort of society, as are others like him. They’re the ones who keep him in fresh identities as the years pass, in return for some “odd jobs” now and then. And as long as Tom keeps a low, lonely profile, never falling in love or making long-lasting connections with others. But Tom is getting tired of the lifestyle. The only thing keeping him going is the memory of his long-dead wife and the hope that his daughter (who has the same affliction he does) might still be alive.
The book follows Tom in modern-day London, and fills in the backstory of his life. There are wonderful historical touches, particularly the scenes set in Shakespeare’s London. The glimpses of the past help to drive home the point that people have always, always been the same–and you get the sense of how annoying it must be to have to watch the same cycles played out over and over again over centuries.
Haig has such a compassionate way with his characters. The message of his novels, particularly this one, always has to do with the importance of being as good a human being as one can possibly be–to love one another, and to recognize one’s place in the grander scheme. In his novel The Humans, that scheme was the universe. Here, the scheme is time. It’s a funny, touching, hopeful, and humane study of love, loss, and history.
Humans are violent and dangerous and not to be trusted. We especially cannot be trusted with technology or advancements that we aren’t mentally or emotionally equipped for. So, when mathematician Andrew Martin makes a discovery that has the potential to grant us technological advancement which we’ve never even dreamed of, the Vonnadorians must step in. Our unnamed narrator kills Martin and takes his place, on a mission to erase all knowledge of this mathematical advancement. However, our narrator begins to develop an affection for humans–alarming for a being whose race is devoted entirely to pure mathematics. Will he complete the task he’s been set by his superiors and return to his life in his distant galaxy, or have the humans won him over?
This is one of those books that’s just nice. There’s some swearing and some sex and some violence (it’s about humans, after all), but at its core it’s a sweet story about appreciating the good about humanity. Plainly Haig is in agreement with Robert Ardrey, who wrote in his African Genesis: A Personal Investigation into the Animal Origins and Nature of Man:
“But we were born of risen apes, not fallen angels, and the apes were armed killers besides. And so what shall we wonder at? Our murders and massacres and missiles, and our irreconcilable regiments? Or our treaties whatever they may be worth; our symphonies however seldom they may be played; our peaceful acres, however frequently they may be converted into battlefields; our dreams however rarely they may be accomplished. The miracle of man is not how far he has sunk but how magnificently he has risen. We are known among the stars by our poems, not our corpses.”
There you have the central idea of The Humans. As I read I couldn’t help thinking how unfashionable it is to focus on the nice things about us. To focus on our achievements seems quaint at best and dangerously deluded and arrogant at worst. And while there’s some truth to that, I also think there’s a place for novels like this one. We do have to acknowledge our darkness, but not to the extent that we forget the light. Those critical of this book have called it saccharine or trite, and I can see how some readers could walk away with that impression. There are those who really enjoyed the narrator’s initial critiques of humanity, but were totally not on board for the part where he grows to like us. All fair enough. But readers who enjoy the occasional reminder that life isn’t all bad, and that love really might be the whole point, will find a lot to like in this book.
Matt Haig’s writing style reminds me very much of Terry Pratchett. My husband, who also read and enjoyed The Humans, suggested Pratchett’s Reaper Man as a readalike, and I heartily second the suggestion. In Reaper Man, Discworld’s Death must spend some time as a mortal, which gives him a new and unique perspective on the human experience. Actually, if your favorite aspect of this novel was the outsider perspective on humanity, any of the Discworld books that focus on Death might be good choices.
Adam Rex’s hilarious and touching The True Meaning of Smekday, which I talked about here, might be a good choice for those who enjoyed the angle of humans and aliens becoming friends and allies. It’s aimed at late elementary/middle school readers, and it’s a wonderful story that plays with format and has a great sense of humor.
Ken also read The Humans–he rated it a 5 and said in his review: “Best book I’ve read in a long time–it’s part sci-fi, mathematics, suspense, love, and perspective on us humans.” Well put!