In Matt Haig’s novel The Humans, a nameless alien inhabits the body of a human mathematician in order to destroy a groundbreaking theorem and eliminate people who know about its universe-changing potential. But instead, this alien—part of a race that has transcended names, emotions and vulnerabilities—finds himself fascinated by the quotidian lives of the humans he observes. More dangerously, he starts becoming human. Inspired by penning his own non-human narrator, Haig details his favorite science fiction novels that provide “alien” (both literally and figuratively) views on the human race, in stories in which mankind is the minority.
The best science fiction writers use the genre not to escape human life, but to explore it. Sometimes the most illuminating way to examine ourselves is to look at us from a different perspective: an alien narrator, for instance, or a human narrator placed in an inhuman environment, where humans are scarce, dwindling or totally non-existent. Here are my favorite books that get close to us, by losing us.
Oryx and Crake in many ways conforms to the conventions of the “lone survivor” genre: The dystopian landscape is bleak, and the narrator—the Snowman—is presented to us, by himself, as a kind of mythic figure. From the start of the book, the Snowman is an all-knowing Socrates offering wisdom to strange, near-human creatures. But Atwood, as always, soars above any genre familiarities through sheer imagination. What is poignant about this narration is that though the Snowman is technically human (we later learn his name, Jimmy) he—like the world around him—has quite literally been dehumanized. He is a human trapped inside his inhumanity. His emotional journey reflects the novel: It is at once fantasy and a horrifying fable about what we humans do to ourselves.
On one level, this is outrageous sci-fi—a kind of geek soft porn with a narrator called Freya, a robot exclusively designed to be a sexual companion. She even has the ability to change her own skin color according to her clients’ tastes. Though it has the potential to devolve into pure geek-fest, what’s interesting about this novel is that unlike so many other robot books, in this one there are no humans at all—and it tracks that emotional fallout. Saturn’s Children presents a surprisingly moving and rather unusual post-apocalypse that makes us mourn ourselves.
Pierre Boulle‘s novels may be better known as films (he also wrote The Bridge Over the River Kwai), but they are worth reading in their own right.Planet of the Apes is perhaps the ultimate example of science fiction making us question our place in society. The idea of humans being dominated by civilized great apes was a stroke of genius, and the page version of this story is famously different to the screen version. Especially interesting is that here the poor human narrator tells the story in an attempt to stay civilized—”to escape from the despair that haunted me, to prove to myself that I was a man, I mean a man from Earth, a reasoning creature who made it a habit to discover a logical explanation for the apparently miraculous whims of nature, and not a beast hunted down by highly developed apes.”
4. The Sparrow
This is not only the most elegant science fiction story ever written, but also the best of the many tales dealing with a human visitor to another planet, and one full of both beautiful and horrifying imagery. As with Planet of the Apes, Jesuit priest Emilio Sandoz suffers greatly during his time on the planet of Rakhat when he is made to serve the Jana’ata, an oppressive species whose members share traits with the humans they dominate. Through the act of confessing his sins to the Vatican upon his return to Earth, Sandoz begins to heal and feel human again. Yet again, a human is found and saved by that most human act—storytelling.
Matt Haig is the bestselling author of several children’s books and novels, including The Last Family in England, a UK bestseller, and The Radleys,winner of the ALA Alex Award. An alumnus of Hull University and Leeds, his work has been translated into 29 languages. He lives in New York with his wife, UK novelist Andrea Semple, and their two children.
This piece originally ran in August 2013.