How often do we contemplate what it is that makes us human? Caught up in the daily minutiae of our lives, many of us lose sight of the true miracle that is our existence. This is the sentiment explored by British author Matt Haig in his novel The Humans, which takes a hackneyed premise (the observation of Earthlings by a visitor from another galaxy) and turns it into a surprisingly touching and often hilarious tale.

Our narrator is Professor Andrew Martin, a brilliant mathematician who has just cracked the Riemann hypothesis, a mind-bending, real-life theory that is considered one of the math world’s most significant unsolved problems. Only it isn’t really Andrew the reader is following. Our protagonist is actually an alien being, sent from his hosts on a far-distant and extremely advanced planet to kill the professor, take on his identity and delete all knowledge of the solved hypothesis from Earth. In the view of these extra­terrestrials, humans are nothing but incredibly simple, brutally violent, money-hungry beings who aren’t worthy of the revolutionary effects this proof would have.

If this sounds far-fetched and a bit ridiculous, well . . . it is. But Haig elevates the premise with his deft, humor-rich storytelling skills, even as some plot points can be seen several pages away. Will the alien Andrew Martin realize that the “simplicity” of human emotions such as love and grief—things not experienced in any way on his planet—are actually complex and beautiful? Will the idea of mortality—also not seen on his planet—cause him to appreciate the magnificent fragility of earthly life?

What do you think?

Yet even when the storyline seems predictable, there is much pleasure in the journey as the previously impassive “professor” is awakened to the joys of the Talking Heads, crunchy peanut butter, sex, soccer and the sloppy-tongued loyalty of a good dog. A reverence for mathematics and history also runs through the book, cutting through some of the sentimentality with a healthy dose of intellectualism. The Humans is an engaging summer read.

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