“I know that some of you reading this are convinced humans are a myth, but I am here to state that they do actually exist. For those that don’t know, a human is a real bipedal life form of midrange intelligence, living a largely deluded existence on a small waterlogged planet in a very lonely corner of the universe.”
Encountering the Alien
This must be one of the most muted and personal alien invasion stories that you will come across. As the narrator admits, this is more magical realism than science fiction in many ways.
Haig displays a wise understanding of the human condition and exploits to the hilt the vantage point that he has given his narrator. Many anthropological, sociological and evolutionary texts often invite the reader to view the world as if it is being viewed from an alien sociologist/scientist’s perspective. Haig converts that into a novel length observation about the humans, and adds a twist: instead of observing only from a constant alien perspective, he makes the vantage point an ever shifting one - that of a continually evolving perspective that is moving closer and closer to that of the human.
So we are given a picture of how alien the human race is at first glance, and how familiarity is the only way to reconcile with the many contradictions of the human condition, and how when you then look back, it is impossible to identify what exact elements turned you off in the beginning. While this is in an alien-human context in this book, this process is also applicable to any new encounter with an ‘alien’ culture among us humans too. And as many other sci-fi books demonstrate, this is a fully two-way street. You cannot meet an alien culture that you cannot love - if you don't, the fault must be more in you than in the culture.
I have made this sound more philosophical than it is. And I am not doing the novel justice. Haig does all this with a very light touch, keeping a steady dose of unassuming British humor. The plot is kept entertaining though its overall nature is very predictable, but as Haig takes pains to show, the beauty is in the small details. That is what makes the human species worth preserving. At first glance no alien race would be able to resist the temptation to exterminate a dangerous, almost rabid, species like ours. Given time, we just might charm them though.
Disclaimer: The novel makes a good case for the humans. I am not entirely convinced. Post Script: Advice From a Distance
The narrator decides to give some advice to fellow humans and comes up with some cliched (yet wise) gems. A selection:
1. Shame is a shackle. Free yourself.
2. Don’t worry about your abilities. You have the ability to love. That is enough.
3. Be nice to other people. At the universal level, they are you.
4. Technology won’t save humankind. Humans will.
6. Be curious. Question everything. A present fact is just a future fiction.
7. Irony is fine, but not as fine as feeling.
8. Peanut butter sandwiches go perfectly well with a glass of white wine. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
9. Sometimes, to be yourself you will have to forget yourself and become something else. Your character is not a fixed thing. You will sometimes have to move to keep up with it.
10. History is a branch of mathematics. So is literature. Economics is a branch of religion.
11. Sex can damage love but love can’t damage sex.
12. The news should start with mathematics, then poetry, and move down from there.
13. You shouldn’t have been born. Your existence is as close to impossible as can be. To dismiss the impossible is to dismiss yourself.
14. Your life will have 25,000 days in it. Make sure you remember some of them.
15. The road to snobbery is the road to misery. And vice versa.
16. Tragedy is just comedy that hasn’t come to fruition. One day we will laugh at this. We will laugh at everything.
17. Wear clothes, by all means, but remember they are clothes.
18. One life form’s gold is another life form’s tin can.
19. Read poetry. Especially poetry by Emily Dickinson. It might save you. Anne Sexton knows the mind, Walt Whitman knows grass, but Emily Dickinson knows everything.
22. Don’t worry about being angry. Worry when being angry becomes impossible. Because then you have been consumed.
23. Happiness is not out here. It is in there.
24. New technology, on Earth, just means something you will laugh at in five years. Value the stuff you won’t laugh at in five years. Like love. Or a good poem. Or a song. Or the sky.
25. There is only one genre in fiction. The genre is called ‘book’.
28. Your mother should write a novel. Encourage her.
29. If there is a sunset, stop and look at it. Knowledge is finite. Wonder is infinite.
30. Don’t aim for perfection. Evolution, and life, only happen through mistakes.
31. Failure is a trick of the light.
32. You are human. You will care about money. But realise it can’t make you happy because happiness is not for sale.
33. You are not the most intelligent creature in the universe. You are not even the most intelligent creature on your planet. The tonal language in the song of a humpback whale displays more complexity than the entire works of Shakespeare. It is not a competition. Well, it is. But don’t worry about it.
36. One day humans will live on Mars. But nothing there will be more exciting than a single overcast morning on Earth.
38. Walt Whitman was right about at least one thing. You will contradict yourself. You are large. You contain multitudes.
39. No one is ever completely right about anything. Anywhere.
40. Everyone is a comedy. If people are laughing at you they just don’t quite understand the joke that is themselves.
42. In a thousand years, if humans survive that long, everything you know will have been disproved. And replaced by even bigger myths.
43. Everything matters.
44. You have the power to stop time. You do it by kissing. Or listening to music. Music, by the way, is how you see things you can’t otherwise see. It is the most advanced thing you have. It is a superpower. Keep up with the bass guitar. You are good at it. Join a band.
46. A paradox. The things you don’t need to live – books, art, cinema, wine and so on – are the things you need to live.
47. A cow is a cow even if you call it beef.
48. No two moralities match. Accept different shapes, so long as they aren’t sharp enough to hurt.
50. At some point, bad things are going to happen. Have someone to hold on to.
52. If you are laughing, check that you don’t really want to cry. And vice versa.
53. Don’t ever be afraid of telling someone you love them. There are things wrong with your world, but an excess of love is not one.
55. You are not the only species on Earth with technology. Look at ants. Really. Look. What they do with twigs and leaves is quite amazing.
57. There are a lot of idiots in your species. Lots and lots. You are not one of them. Hold your ground.
60. Obey your head. Obey your heart. Obey your gut. In fact, obey everything except commands.
61. One day, if you get into a position of power, tell people this: just because you can, it doesn’t mean you should. There is a power and a beauty in unproved conjectures, unkissed lips and unpicked flowers.
63. It’s not the technique, it’s the method. It’s not the words, it’s the melody.
64. Be alive. That is your supreme duty to the world.
65. Don’t think you know. Know you think.
66. As a black hole forms it creates an immense gamma-ray burst, blinding whole galaxies with light and destroying millions of worlds. You could disappear at any second. This one. Or this one. Or this one. Make sure, as often as possible, you are doing something you’d be happy to die doing.
67. War is the answer. To the wrong question.
73. No one will understand you. It is not, ultimately, that important. What is important is that you understand you.
74. A quark is not the smallest thing. The wish you have on your death-bed – to have worked harder – that is the smallest thing. Because it won’t be there.
75. Politeness is often fear. Kindness is always courage. But caring is what makes you human. Care more, become more human.
76. In your mind, change the name of every day to Saturday. And change the name of work to play.
77. When you watch the news and see members of your species in turmoil, do not think there is nothing you can do. But know it is not done by watching news.
78. You get up. You put on your clothes. And then you put on your personality. Choose wisely.
80. Language is euphemism. Love is truth.
81. You can’t find happiness looking for the meaning of life. Meaning is only the third most important thing. It comes after loving and being.
82. If you think something is ugly, look harder. Ugliness is just a failure of seeing.
83. A watched pot never boils. That is all you need to know about quantum physics.
85. The Dark Ages never ended.
86. To like something is to insult it. Love it or hate it. Be passionate. As civilisation advances, so does indifference. It is a disease. Immunise yourself with art. And love.
89. At the sub-atomic level, everything is complex. But you do not live at the sub-atomic level. You have the right to simplify. If you don’t, you will go insane.
90. But know this. Men are not from Mars. Women are not from Venus. Do not fall for categories. Everyone is everything. Every ingredient inside a star is inside you, and every personality that ever existed competes in the theatre of your mind for the main role.
91. You are lucky to be alive. Inhale and take in life’s wonders. Never take so much as a single petal of a single flower for granted.
92. If you have children and love one more than another, work at it. They will know, even if it’s by a single atom less. A single atom is all you need to make a very big explosion.
93. School is a joke. But go along with it, because you are very near to the punchline.
94. You don’t have to be an academic. You don’t have to be anything. Don’t force it. Feel your way, and don’t stop feeling your way until something fits. Maybe nothing will. Maybe you are a road, not a destination. That is fine. Be a road. But make sure it’s one with something to look at out of the window.