First things first, is everyone familiar with the term defamiliarization? Let’s dip in to the Oxford Concise Dictionary of Literary Terms to remind ourselves: defamiliarization – the distinctive effect achieved by literary works in disrupting our habitual perception of the world, enabling us to ‘see’ things afresh.
The Humans is a concerted exercise in defamiliarization. The protagonist is an alien sent to Earth to take the place, and form, of a Cambridge maths professor who has discovered a proof that is too much for human minds. The alien’s mission is to kill everyone that the professor has told. Despite the sound of it, this is far more family and psychological drama than science fiction novel. From an initial revulsion, the alien grows to understand the complexities and ironies of human life, and (rather too predictably for my taste) learns to love.
The novel is at its best when it tackles issues of human nature with a wry self-awareness, for example, in the defamiliarization of humans: ‘The Things They Do To Make Themselves Happy That Actually Make Them Miserable…shopping, watching TV…writing semi-autobiographical novels.’ I liked the supporting players more than the main cast: the dog, Newton, is exemplar of characterization done right.
It is well written, though I did begin to skim some of the description-heavy sections that seemed less related to the plot. Quotations were beautifully used to introduce chapters and set tone.
Generally, if you like the idea of the familiar being made strange again, I would highly recommend A Martian Sends A Postcard Home by Craig Raine:
Caxtons are mechanical birds with many wings
and some are treasured for their markings–
they cause the eyes to melt
or the body to shriek without pain.
I have never seen one fly, but
sometimes they perch on the hand.
Mist is when the sky is tired of flight
and rests its soft machine on the ground:
then the world is dim and bookish
like engravings under tissue paper.
Rain is when the earth is television.
It has the properites of making colours darker.
Model T is a room with the lock inside —
a key is turned to free the world
for movement, so quick there is a film
to watch for anything missed.
But time is tied to the wrist
or kept in a box, ticking with impatience.
In homes, a haunted apparatus sleeps,
that snores when you pick it up.
If the ghost cries, they carry it
to their lips and soothe it to sleep
with sounds. And yet, they wake it up
deliberately, by tickling with a finger.
Only the young are allowed to suffer
openly. Adults go to a punishment room
with water but nothing to eat.
They lock the door and suffer the noises
alone. No one is exempt
and everyone’s pain has a different smell.
At night, when all the colours die,
they hide in pairs
and read about themselves —
in colour, with their eyelids shut.
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