The Humans by Matt Haig

The HumansTitle: The Humans
Author: Matt Haig
Published: 9 May 2013
Publisher: Canongate Books
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Genre: science fiction
Rating: 7/10

This book, this actual book, is set right here, on Earth. It is about the meaning of life and nothing at all. It is about what it takes to kill somebody, and save them. It is about love and dead poets and wholenut peanut butter. It’s about matter and antimatter, everything and nothing, hope and hate. It’s about a forty-one-year-old female historian called Isobel and her fifteen-year-old son called Gulliver and the cleverest mathematician in the world. It is, in short, about how to become a human.

An unnamed alien is sent to earth in the guise of a forty-three-year-old mathematician named Andrew Martin. The aliens kidnapped and killed the real Andrew Martin shortly beforehand, after he proved the Riemann hypothesis – “the most significant mathematical puzzle the humans had ever faced”. It’s a breakthrough that would have “advanced the human race beyond anyone’s imagining”.

But the aliens – Vonnadorians – don’t want such a greedy, violent, narrow-minded species to achieve space travel and go around exploiting other planets and killing other beings. So they’ve sent an unpopular underling to do the unpleasant task of destroying all knowledge of the proof – wiping it from any computer, and killing anyone who might even know that it was solved. LIke Andrew’s wife Isobel and his son Gulliver.

Despite the Vonnadorians’ sophisticated technology however, they can only turn themselves into clones of humans, not replicate their memories. And their understanding of humanity is actually very unsophisticated and deeply, deeply cynical.

Thus, the new Andrew Martin is essentially a “forty-three-year-old newborn on planet Earth”. Or rather, a weirdly rational and extremely pessimistic newborn. He arrives naked and utterly clueless as to why he can’t walk around Cambridge without any clothes on. He stops at a petrol station and reads a copy of Cosmopolitan at the shop to educate himself, giving him a very skewed idea of humanity that focuses rather heavily on orgasms.

The new Andrew’s clumsy attempts to be human are often funny, but it gets a lot more serious when it comes to his wife and son. The original Andrew was a distant and uncaring father who always chose his work over his family, and as a result the alien Andrew’s extremely odd behaviour is not just baffling but hurtful to them.

Not that alien Andrew is happy to be on Earth. At first the only creature he can get along with is the family dog, Newton. He finds everything about humans repulsive and ridiculous, from their protruding noses to their feelings to their clothes. He’s shocked that they actually have spend parts of their short little lives reading instead of just instantly consuming books in capsules – “No wonder they were a species of primitives. By the time they had read enough books to actually reach a state of knowledge where they can do anything with it they are dead”. He criticises the news for being only news about humans (and not one of the other millions of species on the planet) and generally only about war and money rather than “new mathematical observations or still undiscovered polygons”. He can’t believe that the buildings and cars are all dead and stuck to the ground.

His home planet is, of course, completely different. They have no names because they never prioritise the individual over the collective. Their mastery of mathematics has given them immortality, telekinesis and many other gifts. The cars and buildings are living beings in beautiful, complex shapes. They have no weather, no fear, no war, no suffering etc. And they can’t just let the universe do what it wants to do, because [they] will be inside it for eternity”. Hence halting the progress of dangerous species like humans (and probably many others, from the sound of it).

The interesting thing is that the Vonnadorians have achieved many things that humanity desires, like highly advanced technology and immortality, but the novels forces us to look askance at these things when juxtaposed with primitive humanity and all its terrible flaws.

Because, of course, Andrew slowly becomes more and more human, and learns to appreciate humanity. It’s illogical and chaotic, but there’s a beauty in that craziness. As Andrew sees that, he reveals the darker side of his supposedly utopian home – that the Vonnadorians never enjoy anything, never feel anything, don’t care about each other. Despite their vast understanding of mathematics and everything that comes with it, they are stagnant in their understanding of other species and cultures. Andrew’s masters, who are constantly watching his progress, are unable to understand his growing empathy for humans, particularly his ‘wife’ Isobel and ‘son’ Gulliver. He doesn’t want to murder them for the greater good, but his masters won’t give him any choice in the matter.

This novel has frequently been lauded as inspiring and heartwarming, and it’s easy to see why. It wholeheartedly affirms the wonders of human life, despite all its shortcomings and failures. It’s sf aspects are not particularly impressive, but it’s got a feel-good aspect to it that I don’t often encounter in the genre, and it’s the kind of well-written, emotionally charged book that you can give to people who scoff at sff to show them that it’s not whatever cliche they assume it to be.

I’m not a particularly sentimental person though, and there were times when I felt like I was reading the literary equivalent of a Disney movie, particularly in the way alien Andrew becomes a far better father and husband than the original ever was. There’s also a very soft fluffiness in that his growing appreciation for humanity is made so easy by the privileges of Andrew Martin’s life. He’s extremely intelligent, well-educated, has meaningful work as a professor at Cambridge University, lives in a large, comfortable home, enjoys good food and wine. He doesn’t live in an impoverished country, doesn’t have to worry about food, shelter, medical care, political unrest, or a high crime rate. He doesn’t have to deal with the prejudices or other difficulties that might arise from being black, gay, female, poor, disabled, etc. Andrew Martin is a straight white male from an intellectual elite living a cushy life in a first-world country. The only way you could make it easier for him to appreciate being human would be to make him young, gorgeous and athletic too

So, Andrew’s supposedly inspiring insights into the beauty of humanity can sometimes be rather trite or narrow-minded. As a result, It wasn’t a profound and meaningful read for me, as it seems to have been for some people.

That said, it has an optimism that I find charming and perhaps even important. Whether or not your life is anything like Andrew Martin’s it helps to be reminded to appreciate the little things or the way the bad things in life can be good for you. Haig also does some really beautiful things with his story, by entwining mathematics and poetry with Andrew’s awakening. One of the reasons he learns to love humans is the poetry of Emily Dickinson, which is frequently quoted amidst other lovely bits of literature.

And, overall, The Humans is just a nice book to read. That might sound bland, but amidst the horror, grimdark, and dark fantasy, the dystopian and (post)apocalyptic fiction, it helps to be reminded that the world isn’t always as bleak as the Vonnadorians assume.

Review of The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino

The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino

Title: The Devotion of Suspect X
Author: Keigo Higashino
Translator: Alexander O. Smith with Elye J. Alexander
Published: First published in Japanese in 2005; this translation published in 2011
Publisher:
 Little, Brown
Genre: crime, mytery
Source: review copy from Penguin SA
Rating: 7/10

Yasuko is a single mother living a quiet life, working in a Tokyo bento shop, when her ex-husband Togashi walks back into her life. She’d divorced him after he became an abusive drunk who took her money for gambling. Afterwards, he’d repeatedly harassed Yasuko and her daughter Misato, until Yasuko changed jobs, homes and Misato’s school in an effort to get away from him. But now he’s found them again. In their small apartment, he brags that they will never be rid of him, prompting a terrified Misato to attack him. In the struggle that follows, Yasuko defends her daughter by strangling Togashi while Misato holds him down.

Mother and daughter are both prepared to turn themselves in when their enigmatic neighbour, Ishigami, calls and offers to help them dispose of the body. Yasuko is shocked that he figured out what happened and wants to help, but she knows that Ishigami – a reclusive mathematical genius – has always had a thing for her. Although he’s too shy to exchange more than a few words with her and sometimes can’t even make eye contact, he always buys his lunch from the bento shop where she works just so that he can see her.

Ishigami immediately begins instructing Yasuko and Misato on dealing with the incriminating evidence and makes plans for disposing of Togashi’s body. Soon after, the police find a body with its face smashed in and fingerprints burned off. By the time they identify it as Togashi and come knocking on Yasuko’s door, the mother and daughter have credible alibis and there is no solid evidence linking them to Togashi’s death. But the police have no one else to suspect, and Detective Kusanagi of the Edogawa police keeps poking at the problems in Yasuko’s story and questioning the puzzling circumstances of the murder. He turns to his friend Yukawa, another genius who works in the physics department at a local university and sometimes helps the police with their cases.

Yukawa, Kusanagi and Ishigami actually all attended university at the same time, and when Yukawa hears that Ishigami is the neighbour of the murder suspect, he asks Kusanagi for the address. Yukawa simply wants to get in touch with an old friend and classmate whose brilliance he deeply admired, but in doing so he starts to suspect Ishigami’s involvement in the case. The physicist is the only one with a mind to match the mathematician’s, and with Kusanagi’s help he tries to solve the problem that Ishigami has created to protect the woman he is so devoted to.

This is an unusual and interesting angle for a mystery novel. For the reader, there is no mystery surrounding Togashi’s murder – we learn all there is to know about the why, who and how in the first two chapters. Instead, it’s Ishigami’s brilliant cover-up that drives the story, as Yukawa and Kusanagi battle to find the truth. We see only fragments of Ishigami’s plan, which at first seems simplistic and sloppy, but is soon revealed to be complex and deceptive. Ishigami has never done something like this before, but he is certain that “Logical thinking will get us through this” and applies mathematical ideas to the problem as if it were an equation or philosophical dilemma.

For the sake of suspense, most of his methods are hidden from the reader until the very end. It feels a tad artificial, since the story is told from multiple perspectives (Yasuko, Ishigami, Yukawa and Kusanagi) and you are very aware of the fact that the author is being selective about what his characters say and think, or how much of their conversations are put on the page. But I thought the story worked very well nevertheless. Even if you aren’t privy to Ishigami’s plans, you get to see Yukawa and Kusanagi tackling the problem. The only irritating part is when Yukawa starts to figure out what happened, but only makes vague and provocative statements about it because he’s unwilling to incriminate his friend and doesn’t want such a brilliant mind to be wasted in prison.

There are some other interesting character dynamics at play. Yasuko starts dating an old friend, but both she and Misato are aware of how this could jeopardise their situation – Ishigami is obviously obsessed with her, so what might he do if he feels betrayed? Should Yasuko put her life on hold for someone so socially inept that he can’t even have a normal conversation with her? And how dangerous is Ishigami, a man who didn’t think twice about covering up a murder or mutilating a body to do it? The crime has been committed, but the sense of menace remains, especially when Yukawa describes Ishigami as a man who would do anything, no matter how horrific, if it was the most logical solution to a problem.

It’s quietly compelling story, somehow managing to be a page-turner with a minimum of the drama that that term generally implies. I appreciated its calm, straightforward manner and the way the plot differed from the norm. The Japanese police in the novel seem so very different from the brash cops often seen in fiction, or the overworked, under-resourced and inefficient ones you hear about in the news. The Edogawa police have all the resources they need, and Kusanagi is thoughtful and observant. He warns his partner about the danger of assumptions, when the younger officer assumes that a nice single-mother like Yasuko couldn’t possibly be guilty of a violent crime. Similarly, Yukawa warns Kusanagi about the assumptions the police are making, knowing that Ishigami could use that against them.

I like the strategic, rational thinking here, especially when it comes to the two geniuses. I only wish that the whole novel was as rigorous, because its logic fails somewhat in relation to Misato’s character. While there were only two or three technical details that bothered me in the novel, the worst one was about Misato – after she attacks Togashi, he retaliates and hits her repeatedly in the face, but at no point does she show any bruises.

Then, I felt that her character was badly neglected, which bugged me throughout the book and becomes problematic at the end. We’re always left to make assumptions about her motives and feelings, while other characters’ are described in more detail. It’s stated that Togashi had physically abused Yasuko, but whether or not Misato was also abused is not clear, although it’s very likely. Then there’s a subtle suggestion that he may have abused her sexually, which would certainly account for her fear, and her impulse to attack Togashi and help her mother kill him. Misato’s actions are what set the entire story in motion, but even in that crucial moment the focus is on Yasuko, and Misato feels secondary. For the rest of the novel, she is little more than a sullen teenager, spitting out a line here and there. She clearly feels guilty about what she did, not because Togashi was killed but because of the trouble and risk created for Yasuko and Ishigami. And yet Misato’s feelings are barely touched upon, even when we see the story from Yasuko’s POV as a concerned parent. If she talks to Misato about the situation, we don’t see it on the page.

On a related note, the police largely ignore the reasons behind the murder. The reader, of course, knows that Togashi threatened Yasuko and Misato, and several characters express relief at his death, knowing how badly he’d treated his ex-wife and step-daughter. The police, however, are more concerned with the who and how of the murder, not the why. With no one to suspect except Yasuko, they try to figure out how she could have done it, but aren’t too concerned with the glaring possibility that she killed Togashi in a kind of self-defence. Besides the fact that the police would need a motive for the case, ignoring the issue seems unkind, portraying Yasuko as a killer rather than a vulnerable person in a difficult situation.

Flaws aside though, The Devotion of Suspect X is an excellent crime thriller and an intelligent page-turner. It offers a refreshing departure from the norm in English-language fiction, not only because of the plot but because of the Tokyo setting, and the Japanese culture. The translation can be a little clunky at times, but some of that I would chalk up to a difference in style that I’ve noticed in other translations from Japanese, in both popular fiction and anime. I’d happily pick up another of Keigo Higashino’s novels, and I’d recommend that you do too.