Friday 21 February 2014

Emily Dickinson makes us human

I have been listening to 'The Humans' by Matt Haig (who also writes a thoughtful blog) and although bits of it drifted past me (or got drowned out by frying onions) it has really grown on me over the course of the last week. It tells the story of a mathematician called Andrew Martin, or rather a nameless alien who has been sent to earth to replace Andrew Martin, because said alien race learned that he had solved the Reimann Hypothesis (a real thing I discovered, the hypothesis that is, not anyone solving it) and that this would have led to undesirable technological advances in an undesirable species. 

The story starts off with 'Andrew' coming down here all superior, thinking he will just do his job of ridding the world of any evidence of the solution and then going back to his own world, but along the way he starts to learn all sorts of stuff about what it means to be a human being, he starts to form attachments, to make some sense of it all, and he changes his mind. While to begin with there were some fairly standard 'alien' responses, 'aren't the humans ugly', 'the food is disgusting', 'they are only really about as intelligent as dogs' and learning some early life lessons from a copy of Cosmopolitan, but then we watch our hero gradually come to see humans in a whole different light. The human Andrew had made a bit of a mess of his personal life, been a remote and neglectful husband and father, but the alien Andrew has a different set of motivations and begins to build a new relationship with his wife and son. In trying to pretend to be a human he is forced to take on some human traits. He arrived thinking that humans were a nasty violent race who needed to be kept in their place but then he discovers music, a bond with Newton the family dog, Emily Dickinson's poetry ("Emily Dickinson was making me human"), and most importantly an understanding of love. There are some wonderful laugh-out-loud scenes; I liked the one where he discovers peanut butter sandwiches and proceeds to share them with the dog and then the conversation they have when the pot is empty. And his analysis of human's interest in 'the news', we are only really interested in what is close to us, in our country, in our town, the closer the better, so that in effect Facebook is actually the ultimate news programme that is purely about what is happening to us.  As the story progresses he is left with a terrible quandary since his instructions are to come down and kill anyone with any potential knowledge of Andrew's discovery, but these are people he has now come to care about. 

While the message is a little warm and fuzzy it is cleverly written and he is tackling some timeless questions about humanity and morality. I was won over when he described sharing a cup of tea with his wife: "I was enjoying the tea, it tasted like comfort." That's pretty much what makes me feel human.


  1. Tea. Best drink ever. I may pick this one up. Thank you.

  2. Well now you have gone and ruined my "What is wrong with the world?" mood. Thanks for the reminder that we are all fallible. :-) Might actually read this one. Or listen.


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