The Humans, By Matt Haig

This novel about an alienated genius brings a Martian perspective to life on a strange planet

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The Independent Culture

Iknow this is going to sound weirdly egocentric, but I have a funny feeling that this book is about me. For starters, the hero is a bloke called Prof Andrew Martin, of Cambridge University (tick and tick). If that wasn't enough, he is convinced he is an alien (tick).

There are a few trivial differences: he has just solved the Riemann Hypothesis, a classic mathematical conundrum right up there with Fermat's Theorem and the Poincaré Conjecture. And he may have had a major mental meltdown (potential tick). Either that or his body and mind have been possessed by a Vonnadorian from a planet a billion or so light years from Earth. Or, more exotic still, a French philosopher (definite tick).

Matt Haig pays homage to the work of Kurt Vonnegut, notably Slaughterhouse 5, and its Tralfamadorians. But, unless I am misreading the signs here (always a serious risk), the French connection is subtly hinted at. Andrew (ET) Martin's home planet is somewhere in the Derridean galaxy. And he speaks like a true existential, angst-ridden soul, marooned in time and space, tormented by impossible options. The first-person narrative is punctuated by enigmatic and yet resonant statements that would not be out of place in Being and Nothingness or The Outsider, such as, "I am not what I am", and "I was a wasn't".

I like to think that I am not alone in feeling that I am (at some obscure level) an alien (although obviously I am alone). So I am going to omit the riveting story of my close encounter with the UFO. Because this is the beauty of The Humans: it manages to be both absurdly idiosyncratic and singular and, at the same time, charmingly universal.

This is a brilliant high-wire act, keeping alternative hypotheses perfectly poised – is he really an alien or just a 21st-first century schizoid man? Aren't all serious mathematicians a little bit like this? Beyond the philosophical echoes, there are suggestions of a political allegory: the aliens are radically collectivist, perhaps North Korean in tendency, although with more of an emphasis on the colour violet. Alternatively, the book can be read as a religious pastiche, with the son of a super-powered life-form having to relinquish his powers on Earth. Which seems perfectly reasonable to me, since I have always thought of the Bible as a decent exercise in science fiction (obviously God is an alien – creating universes is just something that bored Beings do from time to time).

The plot has Andrew Martin progressively going native, as he gives up his exclusive devotion to prime numbers in favour of poetry, peanut butter, and the Beach Boys (tick, tick, tick). And watching depressing football matches (while still perversely enjoying them). His orders from above, I should add, are to murder his own family and anyone else who has knowledge of his earth-shattering intellectual breakthrough. (Dear family, please note, this box remained unticked.)

Bertrand Russell said that we shouldn't say, "There goes a dog": we ought to say (to be more epistemologically consistent) "I see a canoid patch of colour". Haig's book has the great virtue of getting beyond the laughably parochial, narrow-bandwidth, dogmatically anthropocentric gossip that passes for realism on our planet, to give us engagingly humanoid patches of colour, as well as one extremely sympathetic dog. There is more than a dash here of Craig Raine's Martian sending a postcard home.

The explication of the obvious, although carried off with panache, can be overdone and runs into the problem of infinite regression. If you are going to say, "the blue trousers known as jeans", logically you would have to define "trousers" too, not to mention "blue".

Still, I am tempted to echo Mr Spock's word, as he observed Earthlings – fascinating. Matt Haig sees everything, as if for the first time. His parallel universe is surprisingly familiar. You don't have to be either an alien or a nutty professor to read this book. It speaks to the Andrew Martin in all of us. Only one question – why does no one call him "Andy"?

Andy Martin teaches at Cambridge University; his latest book is 'The Boxer and the Goalkeeper: Sartre vs Camus' (Simon & Schuster)