This is a book I think I ought to have enjoyed more than I did. Indeed, there was a witty irreverence to it that I liked quite a lot, a style of writing that’s equally funny and poignant. It was the style, and the somewhat absurdist musings that were brought to life by the style, that was the most salient part of the book for me.
The thing is, there just wasn’t that much of a story. The concept is that a superior race of aliens has gotten wind of a human solving a mathematical problem that will provide the foundation of basically limitless technological advancement. The aliens are not stoked about this, because in their ineffable opinions, humans are a bunch of warmongering, irrational chumps. So they send one guy out to bodysnatch the overachieving human, one Professor Andrew Martin, and use his body and connections to make sure that no one ever gets wind of his discovery. This would involve the cold-blooded murder of his family and closest confidantes, and so, right away, certain lines are drawn between humans and this alien race, raising questions about what manner and motivation behind killing is acceptable and necessary, and what kind signals a weaker species.
As a meditation on the human condition, the book is largely successful, but beyond the idea laid out above, there isn’t a ton of forward progress in the book. The alien comes to be fond of the people in Andrew Martin’s life, and so grows a conscience about his task. Truthfully, though, as a reader, I wasn’t as taken with these people as the visiting alien was; the characters seemed all rather blank and interchangeable to me. There’s a long-suffering wife, a moody and miserable teenager, and some chipper university colleagues, all of whom are fairly standard templates for the type without much embellishment. And for me, stories without plot must have characters. Further, stories that philosophize on how humans aren’t that bad after all, based on interactions with said characters, ESPECIALLY need to have great characters.
I’ve read Matt Haig previously with The Radleys. Both of these books employ the conceit of an outsider perspective to explore what it means to be human, particularly in the context of a nuclear family. Though I’m tempted to say I preferred The Radleys, both of these books offer a sweet optimism about our small lives that is ultimately uplifting (in spite of a touch of murder.)