What exactly does it mean to be human? Andrew Martin, a Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge, is not himself. This becomes clear when he’s found walking naked through the manicured grounds of his own college, apparently having suffered amnesia or nervous breakdown brought on by overwork. Having just made what might be the biggest mathematical discovery of all time, the Andrew who comes back to live with his wife and son is so disturbed, confused and sometimes downright repulsed by the business of human life that he might as well be, well, an alien. Though strangely he isn’t quite as distant and cold as he was before…
It didn’t surprise me to read in the afterword that Andrew’s alien state is not only a narrative leap of faith, but a metaphor for depression (it’s still a very funny book) based on the author’s experiences, and an intriguing fictionalised take on what it means to make your way back to a ‘human’ state.
The Andrew who comes to sympathise with his troubled wife and son is a different creature- at once a blank slate, a new man- but also irrevocably marked by his alien years. Still, he knows enough to be satisfied with the beauty of some of the things humans have created, like peanut butter sandwiches, rough and unpretentious Australian wines, Emily Dickinson’s poetry or certain songs by the Beach Boys (particularly ‘God Only Knows,’ which I entirely agree with) The story of a frozen man coming to life and a stranger trying to understand our irrational planet in the context of an entire, and in some cases vastly superior, solar system, The Humans is a great reminder that, as Andrew tells his son, ‘Your life will have 25,000 days in it. Make sure you remember some of them.’