The narrator of The Humans is a Vonnadorian, an alien put into human form in order to eradicate all knowledge of a mathematical break-through that would put the power of interstellar space travel and immortality into the hands of humankind.
Professor Andrew Martin solved the Riemann hypothesis and somehow this mathematical break-through was sensed by the Vonnadorians. They felt this knowledge was not something mankind would bear well – the narrator later quotes Einstein ‘Technological progress is like an axe in the hands of a pathological animal’ – and so killed Professor Martin and sent a replacement to get rid of all evidence that this hypothesis could ever be solved. This would also mean killing Martin’s family.
What follows is the unravelling of the narrator’s unemotional isolation (albeit part of a hive mind, they are physically solitary). You can guess where the plot might travel from there.
There is, of course, always the possibility that the narrator is not really an alien but instead presenting us with the ravings of an unhinged mind. It isn’t compelling to follow that possible angle though and even if it were, it wouldn’t matter.
The narrator’s observations of humans and the way they order their lives are poignant, amusing and painful. The petty barriers that society puts between untamed nature and human civilisation are drawn attention to and mocked: clothes and their order so as to hide nakedness and denote status; parks and carefully mown lawns; redefining animals into meat – cow to beef, pig to pork etc.; deeply programmed rules about which conversations are appropriate in which settings and so on.
I’m not going to outline what happens, even if it isn’t difficult to glean the general direction of the plot, because what happens isn’t really what this book is about. The Humans is a meditation on all the silly and transcendent parts that make up human beings and it is funny, whimsical and clever. It is a wonderfully refreshing read, forcing us to look at ourselves (those in well-off societies at least) from a different perspective.
Next week I’ll be reading The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma, one of the novels on the long list for the 2015 Man Booker Prize.