Book Review: Matt Haig, The Humans


An alien from a vastly more advanced distant civilisation is turned into an exact outward copy of a leading human mathematician at Cambridge University, whom the aliens had neatly and coolly murdered because he was on the point of a mathematical discovery which would have revolutionised human civilisation and led to this violent, unpredictable, retarded species gaining powers far beyond what it could handle. His task is to impersonate the dead Professor while he deletes all records of his discovery, including people he may have told about it, starting with his wife and son.

Things start going wrong immediately: his knowledge of human culture is very incomplete, so he doesn’t understand why wandering naked down a motorway at night may lead to what seems a rather extreme response and a brief acquaintance with other people who claim to be aliens.

He deletes one academic colleague. Then something else goes wrong. He starts becoming fond of his supposed wife and child. The rest of the book works out his dilemma.

At least since Montesquieu wrote about imaginary Persians visiting Europe, perhaps since some Roman writings achieving seeing something of the Romans from the viewpoint of conquered tribes, people have used very different strangers as a way of seeing their own culture anew. Some of the best Science Fiction now does this with aliens. The puzzlement and investigations of Matt Haig’s Vonnadorian do help us see ourselves more clearly. This is particularly so because the Vonnadorian culture – maths based, with little individuality and with death having long been banished, is so different from ours. His hero’s problem is that he starts feeling as human as Vonnadorian – an experience some people who are classed as terrestrial aliens, immigrants or refugees may relate to.

The whole thing is very well done – well-written, well-plotted, oddly credible.

In a postscript Matt Haig confides that the roots of this story are in a period of his own life when he was subject to panic attacks and human society and world seemed about as odd to him as they do to his hero at the start.

This is just the best book I’ve read for a long time.

Book Review: Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale

Well now, a lot of people will have read this one and many of those who haven’t will have heard of it. Some will be pretending to have read it. It’s a book with that kind of fame.

Margaret Atwood is a very, very good writer. There are passages of description that are truly poetic (thank God stripped down writing didn’t get to them). The story concerns a totalitarian dystopia created in the USA and Atwood is clever and subtle in describing how the system works and what it does to people. It’s a male-dominated system in which women are reduced to child-bearers and the organisers of child-bearing (although she has very little to say about what then happens to the children, so it’s not clear to me whether some of them have a wider mothering role). It’s been categorised, like Atwood, as feminist, and so it is, but only by a broad and liberal interpretation of the term. Men are victims of the system too.

One problem for me was that I found the opening passages incredibly depressing and there wasn’t much to relieve the gloom. As the story unfolded, the main character’s partial rebellion and the view of how the reality of the system differed from its public face made me less depressed, but don’t look for a happy ending. In fact the ending is extremely close to that of that other description of an almost powerless cog in a totalitarian system rebelling, George Orwell’s “1984”. That made me think back and realise the plot and organisation of the book also resemble 1984. I wonder if Atwood acknowledged any influence. She’s a much better fiction writer than Orwell, though, whose writing is often awkward.


Another useful comparison is with Suzy McKee Chalmas’ “Holdfast” series, another feminist science fiction creation of a masculine repressive dystopia in the USA. Her society is much more extreme in its degradation of women, so that it only works because the action is set very distant from our present time. She doesn’t have to say much about how people fell from A to B, though what she says is credible. Atwood’s creation, though, is young. The main character is in her early thirties and was a young adult when the change happened. That sets the author a much harder task of making things credible and I don’t think she entirely succeeds. For example, the U.S. system of government we know was functioning much as we know it (she mentions an environmental disaster involving nuclear power stations and the San Andreas Fault, but if that happened before the change, it doesn’t seem to have led to chaos or much change in the young woman’s life). Then the President is assassinated and the entire Congress killed, purportedly by Muslim terrorists. the army then takes over, or some kind of secret movement with a lot of support in the army.

I can’t buy this. The sudden removal of the entire Federal tier of U.S. government would leave a whole lot of functioning state governments with their own paramilitary resources and some of them would be perfectly capable of operating as independent countries. In a country as diverse and disorderly as the U.S., I don’t believe the coup could be that easy. Not all the armed forces would go along with it, for a start. Something like this would need a lot of preparation which could not all be in secret, a growth of sympathetic political movements and media comment for example. Admittedly the main character doesn’t seem to have been at all politically aware before the change, but surely even she would spot some trends. It would be more credible if set well in the future – when the society we know would have changed more – but the technology Atwood describes is pretty much that of when she wrote the story, so it’s current society that is overthrown.

OK, that’s the reaction of someone politically active and with a History degree. Once the monstrous regime is in place, though, its awful effectiveness is very convincingly described.

Well worth reading – but read something happier next!




Book Review: Brian Aldiss, “Greybeard”

Brian Aldiss is of course an eminent name in Science Fiction and this is one of his most admired books – but it left me vaguely dissatisfied.

The premise is an original and interesting one. Many SF stories start with the premise that humanity has been nearly wiped out (bit difficult to make a book of them being completely wiped out, though I do remember a brilliant short story in which the only evidence of the nature of our species and civilisation available to alien space travellers much later was a bit of Donald Duck cartoon film).  These stories focus on the recreation of some kind of society and the struggle to survive. But the premise of “Greybeard” is that a military nuclear accident has apparently rendered all humans infertile. The race will die, but it will take a long time dying as no new children are born – but the casualty rate from the accident was quite low, so the population declines gradually.

Initially government, law and the rest hold up, but bit by bit they collapse, not only from the physical pressures, but from the loss of hope. Society and government depend on people being willing to make sacrifices and plans for their children and future generations. Now, of course, we have a crude geneticist explanation for this, but actually people often do not act in the interests of “the selfish gene” and this is not a “mistake” but a choice. They do, though, look to the future. If the only future is one without humans, they live merely for the present and that is not enough.

In fact it turns out that some few relatively healthy children have been born, but are living separate from the ageing adults and building their own basic society. We gain no insight, though, into the nature of this society.

That all sounds fascinating to me, but despite the excellence of the description, I feel Aldiss (or someone) could have written a deeper book on the same theme.

The central characters are Greybeard, an ageing English scientist, and his wife. Everything is seen through Greybeard’s eyes, though the narration is in the third person. the danger in this method is that the use of the third person lulls us into forgetting that we’re receiving only one person’s perception. The characters apart from these two are seen fairly superficially depicted and the two religious characters – one quack prophet and one decent if gloomy friend of Greybeard – are seen entirely from the outside. I felt Aldiss saw religion purely as a set of rules and explanations and did not understand spirituality. One could say that’s Greybeard’s perception only, but exploring how someone with a deep faith would have reacted to these circumstances is an interesting challenge not met here.

Greybeard is driven by an illogical wish to reach the mouth of the river (Thames) from his shabby and declining community near Oxford, but the book ends before he reaches it with the discovery of healthy children. Maybe the journey to the mouth of the river is a metaphor for life and death, but if so, more could be made of it. A bit more is made of the fact that Greybeard had been recruited for a project to record the decline of society, giving him a raison d’etre (if a strange one) beyond survival and love, but again I feel the idea is so fascinating, more could be made of it.

The action set in the present is brilliantly thought out, but some of the flashback seems a bit perfunctory. In particular I don’t understand the point of an episode where the young Greybeard and his girlfriend travel to the U.S.A. when most governments are still functioning, for the recording project and she is kidnapped by someone who wants to enjoy dominating her, but does not rape her. Nothing flows from this and it seems like an episode out of another book.

It’s a thought-provoking and well-written book, though…