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Book club: The Humans, by Matt Haig

07 February 2020

John Saxbee draws out the deeper meaning in Matt Haig’s humorous novel The Humans

IF YOU are looking for a book which is laugh-out-loud funny, profoundly serious, deeply moving, and potentially life-changing, then this is for you.

Yes, it is irreverent at times, and the language is sometimes rather strong, but only to capture character and reflect reality — a reality which the author describes as “magic realism”. This differs from science fiction, because Haig’s purpose is to tell a story which gets to the heart of what it means to be human rather than focus on what is alien and otherworldly.

The wonderfully witty opening pages introduce us to Professor Andrew Martin, a Cambridge University mathematician who has just solved the hitherto insoluble Riemann Hypothesis. Or, rather, we are meeting Martin’s doppelgänger, sent from a far-away galaxy to prevent this discovery threatening the mathematically controlled lifestyle of an alien species that is dependent on remaining the only beings in the universe to have cracked Riemann’s riddle.

While the replacement Professor looks and sounds to all intents and purposes like the original, he still retains extraordinary gifts of healing, mind control, and second sight, characteristic of the beings who sent him — and continue to control him — from that far-off world. Yet he has a lot to learn about the human race and what it means to be human. Indeed, Haig sums up the book as an attempt to look at “the weird and often frightening beauty of being human”.

That word “beauty” is important, because, although the hilarious and sometimes caustic catalogue of confusion and misunderstanding which marks his attempts to fit into Martin’s domestic, professional, and social circle could simply serve to ridicule and belittle humankind, the overall conclusion is much more subtle and sympathetic.

For example, having come from a culture of mathematical aridity unaffected by passions or emotional attachments of any kind, he gradually bonds with Martin’s wife, Maggie, and son, Gulliver (a significant name in the circumstances, of course), and concludes that “lies were everywhere on this planet, but true love had its name for a reason”. Later, he concludes that his previous life, controlled by mathematics and free from emotion and sentimentality, was “the dullest life you can imagine”. He tells Gulliver that “here, you have pain, and loss, that’s the price. But the rewards can be wonderful.”

His mission is to kill those who may have been told about Martin’s discovery. One of his colleagues is seen off, and, if it transpires that Maggie and Gulliver also know, then he must deal with them as well. His super-terrestrial powers are more than equal to the task, but what if his increasing assimilation of human character and sympathies neutralises his hitherto dispassionate resolve? How will his far-off handlers respond to his going native? And how will those around him respond to his increasingly hybrid personality and patterns of behaviour?

This is territory famously traversed by the aforementioned Gulliver, E. T., and even Paddington Bear; but, somehow, Haig achieves something rather special, in his evocation of a beyond in our midst.

Of course, Christians will resonate with the incarnation of a transcendent figure inhabiting human likeness to fulfil a pre-destined mission. It is a comparison capable of providing both the author and the reader with some nourishing food for thought.

In a postscript, Haig describes how he started to write the book after emerging from a period of panic attacks and personality disorder. “Back then”, he writes, “human life felt as strange for me as it does for the unarmed narrator.” This is no mere fantasy novel, but a bitter-sweet response to the mystery of what it means to be human, and, as Christians would express it, what Jesus meant by “life in all its fullness”.

© Kan LaileyMatt Haig, author of The Humans, the book he is most proud of

Not that Haig is overly concerned with looking for the meaning of life. He believes that “meaning is only the third most important thing. It comes after loving and being.” Neither is he looking to organised religion for answers, but readers may well detect a God-shaped hole at the heart of this compelling adventure, with plenty of room left for faith to find a way.

As our hero struggles to make sense of human quirks and behavioural curiosities — food fads, fashion trends, teenage angst, slogans on T-shirts, why anybody supports Cambridge United, social media, etc. — he introduces us, in a way, to ourselves, and we have to smile.

Haig is now a leading exponent of the novel as a vehicle for more than simply telling a good story. Razor-sharp observation, sympathetic humour, intriguing plots, and disarming honesty all contribute to a genre of thought-provoking fiction stretching from Dickens and Wilkie Collins to Sebastian Faulks and Ian McEwan.

A book to simply enjoy for its own sake — and to stimulate a discussion guaranteed to generate both amusement and purposeful reflection.

The Rt Revd Dr John Saxbee is a former Bishop of Lincoln.

The Humans by Matt Haig is published by Canongate at £8.99; 978-1-78689-466-3.


  1. “Music . . . is how you see things you can’t otherwise see.” What does this mean?
  2. “God could not exist. But then neither could humans.” How does the narrator’s understanding of religion develop over the course of the novel? What does he suggest that religion offers humans?
  3. What is suggested to us in the novel about the human concepts of “madness” and “sanity”?
  4. Why, in your view, does the narrator choose to become human?
  5. How does violence feature in the novel (e.g. the narrator encouraging Gulliver to fight)? 
  6. Over the course of the novel, the narrator comes up with many possibilities about the “point” of love. How would you explain it to him?
  7. We witness the narrator committing murder, and, later, adultery. Are these things less evil because he doesn’t know they are wrong?
  8. Would society be better off if we based our decisions on logic alone?
  9. “A cow is a cow even if you call it beef.” What does the book tell us about labelling and categorisation? 
  10. Laughter features as a positive and negative force in the novel. What different sorts of power does it hold?


IN OUR next reading-groups page, on 6 March, we will print extra information about our next book, Wearing Well by Frances Shaw. It is published by Regent College Publishing at £8.99 (£8.10); 978-1-57383-576-3).


Inspired by Paul’s phrase “Put on the Lord Jesus” (Romans 13.14), Wearing Well explores the symbolism of clothing in language and metaphor, in everyday and Christian use. The reader is challenged to question how much his or her clothing choices are governed by a desire to express creativity or a need to conform, “to look the part”. How do we shed the layers of falsity to be clothed with Christ?

Shaw explores these themes in the biblical narratives (in both the Old and New Testaments): one chapter covers the many references to clothing in the Passion story. With its six chapters, each with its own set of penetrating questions, the book lends itself to a Lenten read.


Frances Shaw has a Ph.D. on Matthew’s Gospel, and has taught the Gospels module for the ministry course in Guildford diocese for more than 20 years. Before retirement, she worked as a religious-books editor, and is enthusiastic about literacy and theological education; she is a trustee of Feed the Minds and Grove Books. She is aware of a certain sense of irony in writing about clothing, as she enjoys wearing more casual styles (she is cold most of the time), and dislikes shopping.



April: Stanley and Elsie by Nicola Upson

May: Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

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