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Aliens among us The Humans'

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Sci-fi tale offers outsider's take on humanity

The best science fiction acts as a sort of funhouse mirror, reflecting aspects of our existence back at us in ways that, while twisted, remain recognizable. The genre provides a certain degree of freedom when it comes to exploring ideas; it offers us a removed glimpse at ourselves.

Author Matt Haig has given us one such glimpse with his latest novel 'The Humans' (Simon & Schuster, $25).

Our narrator is an alien a Vannadorian, to be exact who has been sent to our planet by his superiors in order to prevent a dangerously unstable species (humans) from intellectually advancing too far too fast.

He has taken the place of one Professor Andrew Martin, a mathematician at Fitzwilliam College in Cambridge. Professor Martin has solved one of the longest standing problems in mathematics he has determined the proof for the Riemann Hypothesis (which determines the pattern behind the occurrence of prime numbers). According to the Vannadorians, this singular discovery serves as the key to massive technological advancement quantum computing, FTL travel, immortality and so on. However, since humans are deemed unready to cope with such advancement, our narrator is sent to eliminate Martin and all evidence of his discovery.

However, things get complicated.

The Vannadorians aren't particularly well-versed in the ways of humanity, which leads the new Professor Martin to get into a number of awkward situations. For instance, when he arrives, he doesn't know the language. Nor does he know that it is customary to wear clothes. You can imagine the confusion this sort of thing causes.

At first, the mission goes relatively smoothly evidence is deleted from computers, people who Martin told of his discovery are dealt with but before long, the alien finds himself drawn to mankind. He finds himself enraptured with human things both great and small; not only does he slowly come to have feelings for Martin's wife and son, but also things like peanut butter sandwiches, Australian white wine and the poetry of Emily Dickinson.

So when the time comes for him to fulfill his task, he has a decision to make: does he follow through on a mission he's no longer sure of? Or does he defy his hosts and risk everything that he is?

This 'stranger in a strange land' concept is a familiar one in the realm of science fiction, but Haig finds a way to inject it with a real freshness, a vivaciousness that makes the story leap from the page. His never-named narrator's combination of immense knowledge and cultural arrogance results in a truly memorable character. Advanced intellect and naivet don't have to be mutually exclusive concepts, a truth that Haig utilizes to great effect.

This character this proxy-within-a-proxy allows for an outsider's perspective on a world that we have lived in long enough to take for granted. Some of it is played for laughs, of course a good satire is rarely without an ample dose of humor but there is pathos here as well. Using an alien to explore the nature of emotion gives us a glimpse of how difficult it can be to feela difficulty that Haig consistently captures, especially in the novel's latter half.

'The Humans' is a wonderful piece of satiric sci-fi, using the concepts of the genre in a manner both engaging and effective. It's a tale of an alien who learns to be human a lesson even the best of us might enjoy being taught once again.

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