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One of the things that stood out first in novels I liked was the acknowledgement that human beings are odd creatures that are not easily understood, and that the author was looking at these odd creatures to find ways in which they could be better understood. Years later, I came across the term that novels seek to express "the human condition" and that made sense.

Matt Haig's novels take up this notion explicitly. In The Radleys, the outsiders looking in were vampires -- whole families learning about themselves and each other, and how to exist, co-exist and perhaps care about others.

His latest novel, The Humans, is told from the point of view of the most outsider of outsiders, a member of an alien species sent to Earth on a seek-and-destroy mission. Haig uses science fiction tropes and a highly successful dark comic voice to write about what it's like to be an outsider trying to figure out these odd creatures.

As the newcomer to Earth states in beginning his story:

I know that some of you reading this are convinced humans are a myth, but I am here to state they do actually exist. For those that don't know, a human is a real bipedal life form of midrange intelligence, living a largely deluded existence on a small, waterlogged planet in a very lonely corner of the universe.

For the rest of you, and those who sent me, humans are in many respects exactly as strange as you would expect them to be.

The new arrival takes over the body of Andrew Martin, a Cambridge professor who may have solved the Riemann hypothesis, a great mathematical puzzle about prime numbers. This is something the extraterrestrial's planet does not want, hence the covert ops mission. Haig writes about the math in such a way that someone who struggled with geometry and never went farther got it.

Upon arrival, the being who has taken over Martin's body is standing in the middle of the road in the middle of the night, naked. A car is coming at him. That's a lot to process when you are not normally a bipedal being whose culture depends on outer clothing and who has different ways of communicating. Just because someone spits at you, for example, does not mean it is a normal greeting when encountering other beings.

The crafty undercover agent figures out how to get out of police custody and the mental hospital to return back to Martin's home and office. And that, of course, is when things get complicated. Martin's wife is a history professor and best-selling author in her own right. Their son, Gulliver, is a prototypical brilliant, sullen teenager who has been kicked out of a prestigious private school. The colleague closest to Martin is someone he hates. Martin's wife tells him most of his problems stem from unresolved mommy issues. And there's another woman.

Whew. These humans are messy creatures. Plus, they have these noses. They stand out so. They are horrid. Good thing there are objects such as magazines with Cosmopolitan advice to help one understand what matters to humans. And there also is the news, or what should be called "The War and Money Show." How humans revere these things and still are able to occasionally produce an Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman is something of wonder to our visitor.

Humans, as a rule, don't like mad people unless they are good at painting, and only then once they are dead. But the definition of mad, on Earth, seems to be very unclear and inconsistent. What is perfectly sane in one era turns out to be insane in another. The earliest humans walked around naked with no problem. Certain humans, in humid rain forests mainly, still do so. So, we must conclude that madness is a question sometimes of time and sometimes of postcode.
The voice Haig uses in telling this story is so pitch perfect that reading The Humans is worth it for that alone. That the voice is employed to tell such an affecting story is even better.

In the acknowledgments at the novel's end, Haig writes about where the story came from and why he wanted to write it: "a look at the weird and often frightening beauty of being human." Why Haig felt the importance of doing this makes the story all the more compelling and a fitting way to tell the story of an outsider looking in at what it may be like to be human.

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