Saturday, 8 February 2014

The Humans (and the dearth of Kurt Vonneguts)

I got mad at the description of this author as being the new Kurt Vonnegut. Not because he was compared to one of my favourite writers, but I suddenly realised, where are all the new Kurt Vonneguts? Surely there should be legions of cynical sci-fi satirists making us laugh and ruminate over the meaning of life, but I couldn’t think of one.

So, even if this Matt Haig turned out to be a pale imitation of the old genius, it was worth the gamble. I’ve got to say at the outset, Haig ain’t Vonnegut. But there are some similarities in the way he blends sci-fi, philosophy and humour to deliver a pretty damn good read.

And there might be a homeopathic quantum of Vonnegut in The Humans. Take for example the opening scene, where a naked Professor Andrew Martin of Cambridge University, recently possessed by an alien intelligence, stumbles around campus in the rain “spitting greetings” to all and sundry.

It reminded of one of Kilgore Trout’s stories from Breakfast of Champions.

“As for the story itself, it was entitled "The Dancing Fool." Like so many Trout stories, it was about a tragic failure to communicate. Here was the plot: A flying saucer creature named Zog arrived on Earth to explain how wars could be prevented and how cancer could be cured. He brought the information from Margo, a planet where the natives conversed by means of farts and tap dancing. Zog landed at night in Connecticut. He had no sooner touched down than he saw a house on fire. He rushed into the house, farting and tap dancing, warning the people about the terrible danger they were in. The head of the house brained Zog with a golfclub.”

In The Humans, the alien has come to stop the professor publishing a theory that could destroy the universe. In a nutshell: there are an infinite number of numbers; there are an infinite number of prime numbers (because all you need do is add all the known primes together plus one to get a new prime – as Euclid demonstrated in 300BC). Therefore there are the same number of primes as numbers – infinite – which is clearly impossible because some numbers are not primes. Us non-mathematicians just say “so what,” but apparently the solving of this conundrum will lead to spectacular advances in science and technology that humans are not mature enough to manage without destroying the universe.

There’s more than a bit of maths in here, but as my mother used to say about sex scenes in novels, you can just skip over those bits.


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