Science fiction usually comes packed with a wallop. Death stars explode, or they aren't
worthy of the name. Mystery viruses wipe out millions, and make the Black Plague look
like a case of the sniffles. Galactic civilizations are subjugated, if they’re lucky, or swallowed
by black holes if they aren’t. And if a weapon of mass destruction appears in the opening
chapter, you can bet the complete works of Chekhov that it will destruct the masses, or
a good majority of them, before the final page.

Subtlety is as scarce as plutonium-239 in these books. That’s
what makes Matt Haig's
The Humans all the more remarkable.
Haig has written a science fiction novel about compassion, and
the frailties of the human condition. But the sweetest twist is the
narrator: an extra-terrestrial from a remote galaxy who is trying
to live undercover in human society. Even better, he sees us
more clearly than we see ourselves.

Let’s call our alien Professor Andrew Martin. That isn’t his real
name, but rather the identity he has assumed on Earth. Our visitor
from a distant galaxy murdered the real Professor Martin, a
43-year-old mathematics professor at University of Cambridge,
and has adopted a passable imitation of the dead man’s body.  
His purpose is to destroy Martin’s proof of the Riemann hypothesis,
a famous math problem that has dogged the best minds for the last
150 years, and murder anyone who knows about it.

But this isn’t a simple task. This hapless extraterrestrial has to take on Martin’s various
responsibilities as a husband, father, friend and teacher. He is ill-prepared for this
mission—partly due to his ignorance of human customs (even the basics, such as
wearing clothes or eating meals), and even more because he comes from a society
that values rationality and mathematics above all other pursuits. Face it, it’s hard
adjusting to mundane concerns after spending your formative years on a planet where
individuals devote leisure hours to contemplating prime numbers.

But let’s let our narrator tell his own side of the story:

“Prior to arriving on Earth I did not have midbrown hair that fell in a natural side-parting.
Equally, I did not have an opinion on
The Planets by Holtz [sic] or Talking Heads’ second
album, because I did not agree with the concept of music. Or I shouldn't have anyway. And
how could I believe that Australian wine was automatically inferior to wine sourced from
other regions on the planet when I had never drunk anything but liquid nitrogen?”

There are many pleasures in reading this novel, but I especially enjoy Haig’s deftness in
shifting from comedy to profundity, and maintaining a fast-paced story all the while. Some
of the finest passages deal with the new Professor Martin’s haphazard encounters with
those many things we take for granted. We watch in the wings while he has his first
experience with shopping, cigarettes, the Beach Boys, the family dog, coffee, sporting
events, TV news, poetry, police interrogation techniques, automobiles, mental health
professionals, school bullies, peanut butter, and various other quotidian ingredients of
everyday life. Along the way, our narrator discovers new passions—for Emily Dickinson,
Cinema Paradiso and Debussy on the one hand, and his inherited wife and son on the
other—and starts questioning old ones. Rationality doesn't look quite so appealing after
a few glasses of Australian wine, with the right music and company to set the mood.

The success of this kind of writing rests solely on the
insight and skill of the writer, and Haig delivers a
virtuoso performance. Other science fiction writers
are skilled at constructing new worlds, but Haig
achieves something better, he creates a whole new
worldview. Adding to the difficulty, he shows how this
perspective on the vanity of human wishes might prove
so persuasive that even someone lacking all experience
with it—indeed, approaching it with outright hostility—might be persuaded of its validity. This
is the softest of polemics, but no less effective for that fact.

A story of this sort could easily collapse into facile absurdist comedy. The fact that Haig
manages to deliver so much more than mere laughs, without losing the humorous elements
inherent in his plot, probably results from the autobiographical origins of
The Humans. In
his mid-twenties, Haig fell into a deep psychic malaise, a combination of depression and
anxiety that left him literally incapacitated. Storytelling played a key role in his recovery, and
his vocation as an author became linked in Haig’s mind, with an affirmation of the human
condition and the quest for a life worth living.

Even at that early stage, Haig had conceived the basic plot of
The Humans, although he
didn’t find the courage to reveal himself so intimately in print for many years. But over time
Haig’s work has increasingly embraced self revelation, and with powerful results. “I think
books can save us,” he declares, “and I think they sort of saved me.” One could hardly find
a less postmodern or more unfashionable stance for a novelist, but the lived authenticity
that permeates this narrative probably couldn’t exist without Haig’s deeply held conviction
that fiction, even genre fiction, has a destiny beyond escapism and entertainment.

I guess I should be shocked and appalled that the science fiction community hasn’t
embraced this book.
The Humans didn’t even earn a nomination from the Hugo voters
(or combatants, I should perhaps say), who seem to disagree on many things, but
apparently agree that science fiction ought to return to its origins as exemplary stories
for youngsters (albeit sometimes masquerading as books for adults), filled with
teachable moments and driven by didactic impulses. At the very moment when established
literary fiction is turning to sci-fi, sci-fi seems determined to punish books that don’t fit
into formulas. And
The Humans definitely goes against that grain.

Here’s the strange twist. The Edgar Awards, given by the Mystery Writers of America,
did nominate Haig’s book—despite its complete disconnection from anything having to
do with mystery fiction. And I note that
The Humans has attracted a cult following since
its initial release. Teachers are sneaking it into their classroom. Fans are building its
reputation by word of mouth. I even hear accounts of readers who found their life changed
and psychic wounds healed by this novel. If someone doesn’t step in and stop it, this
whole book might by bypass the gatekeepers and hit the big time.

Haig isn’t your typical novelist. In other books, he has retold Shakespeare’s
Henry IV,
Part I
with the main characters replaced by dogs, and updated Hamlet from the perspective
of an autistic pre-teen. He isn’t afraid of taking chances. But Haig has said that he hopes
to be remembered for
The Humans. I suspect that might happen; in fact, I think it might
already be happening.

Ted Gioia writes on music, literature and popular culture. He is the author of ten books. His most
recent book is
How to Listen to Jazz (Basic Books).

Publication date: January 11, 2018
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The Humans

by Matt Haig
Essay by Ted Gioia
Ted Gioia is publishing essays on his
50 favorite works of non-realist fiction
released since 2000. Featured books
will include works of magical realism,
alternative history, sci-fi, horror, and
fantasy, as well as mainstream literary
fiction that pushes boundaries and
challenges conventional notions of

Click here for the other titles
conceptual fiction
Exploring the Non-Realist Tradition in Fiction
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Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to essays on each work)

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

Aldiss, Brian

Aldiss, Brian
Report on Probability A

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Blind Assassin

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Bacigalupi, Paolo
The Windup Girl

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barker, Clive
Books of Blood, Vols. 1-3

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Bierce, Ambrose
The Complete Short Stories

Blackwood, Algernon
The Complete John Silence Stories

Blish, James
A Case of Conscience

Borges, Jorge Luis

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Brooks, Max
World War Z

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Bunch, David R.

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Butler, Octavia E.

Campbell, Ramsey
Demons by Daylight

Campbell, Ramsey
The Nameless

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chambers, Robert W.
The King in Yellow

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Cline, Ernest
Ready Player One

Crichton, Michael
Jurassic Park

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Delany, Samuel R.

Dick, Philip K.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.

Dick, Philip K.

Dickens, Charles
A Christmas Carol

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Egan, Jennifer
A Visit from the Goon Squad

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Fowles, John
A Maggot

Fuentes, Carlos

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil

Gardner, John

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Hendrix, Grady

Herbert, Frank

Joe Hill
Heart-Shaped Box

Hill, Susan
The Woman in Black

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Houellebecq, Michel

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Ishiguro, Kazuo
Never Let Me Go

Jackson, Shirley
The Haunting of Hill House

James, Henry
The Turn of the Screw

James, M.R.
Ghost Stories of an Antiquary

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Ketchum, Jack
Off Season

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

King, Stephen

King, Stephen
Pet Sematary

Koja, Kathe
The Cipher

Krilanovich, Grace
The Orange Eats Creeps

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Lafferty, R.A.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Our Lady of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Levin, Ira
Rosemary's Baby

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Lindqvist, John Ajvide
Let the Right One In

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Lovecraft, H.P.

Machen, Arthur
The Great God Pan

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mandel, Emily St. John
Station Eleven

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
I Am Legend

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Moorcock, Michael
Behold the Man

Moorcock, Michael
The Final Programme

Morrison, Toni

Murakami, Haruki

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o
Wizard of the Crow

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry

Noon, Jeff

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Oyeyemi, Helen
White is for Witching

Percy, Walker
Love in the Ruins

Poe, Edgar Allan
Tales of Mystery & Imagination

Pohl, Frederik

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Rice, Anne
Interview with the Vampire

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Roth, Philip
The Plot Against America

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert

Silverberg, Robert
The World Inside

Simak, Clifford

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Clark Ashton
The Dark Eidolon

Smith, Cordwainer

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Straub, Peter
Ghost Story

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stevenson, Robert Louis
Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde

Stoker, Bram

Stross, Charles

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Tryon, Thomas
The Other

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Vance, Jack
The Dragon Masters

Vance, Jack

Vance, Jack
The Languages of Pao

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vollmann, William T
Last Stories and Other Stories

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Wallace, Edgar
King Kong

Walpole, Horace
The Castle of Otranto

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim

Wong, David
John Dies at the End

Woolf, Virginia

Yamada, Taichi

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Zelazny, Roger
This Immortal

Special Features

Notes on Conceptual Fiction
My Year of Horrible Reading
When Science Fiction Grew Up
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
The Most Secretive Sci-Fi Author
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List

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“I think books can save us,”
he declares, “and I think
they sort of saved me.”