Out of This World

There may be 7 billion people on the planet, and sure, different lands have different cultures, but after a point, we humans can be kind of dull. It's no wonder there are so many stories about monsters and other mythological creatures; human nature only expands so far. It may have been happenstance that my two latest library books both focused on these otherworldly entities, but I still have to assume that I'm in some sort of dreamy, what-if kind of mood.

The first was Neil Gaiman's latest novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane (2013). I'm a big fan of Gaiman's work, but so are a lot of other people, so I figured I was in for a long wait at the library. I actually got it really quickly, and I'm guessing that's because this is a very short read - only 192 pages. It also shares a lot of DNA with other Gaiman books. There's a distinctive Coraline feel to the story, as well as a touch of American Gods. The book is told from the point of view of a man who returns to his small hometown to attend a funeral. He goes to the site of his childhood home and reminisces about the strange experiences of his youth, and the magical women who ran the farm down the lane. All kids have problems, but this unnamed narrator is forced to contend with a power-hungry being from another dimension that hitchhikes to our world as a parasite in his foot. The narrator finds his neighbors the Hempstock women (and especially Lettie, who appears to be near his own age) a mix of ethereal and practical magic, and teams up with them to drive the demon back to where she came from.

There's a very dreamlike quality to the book, and it's a great example of a modern fairy tale. The interloping demon would be genuinely terrifying to a child, and the Hempstock women are exactly the type of people you'd run to in order to defend your home. It fits very neatly into the Gaiman catalog, and I'd heartily recommend it.

The other book I read was far more blunt and analytical. That's because the protagonist is an alien who has no concept of human emotion. I'm talking about Matt Haig's new book, The Humans (2013), which explores what an alien race that has evolved beyond the need for individualism (and its attendant baggage like love and greed) must think of us. I had mixed feelings on Haig's The Dead Fathers Club, but enjoyed it enough not to dismiss The Humans out of hand, especially when I got a specific recommendation for it.

The alien protagonist comes to Earth and takes over the life of a mathematics professor on the verge of solving the Riemann hypothesis. Solving it would allow humans to make enormous leaps in technology and interstellar travel, and the aliens are not supportive of that outcome, believing that we humans would wreck the universe if given access to it. And hey, they're probably not wrong about that. The alien sent to Earth is tasked with eliminating anyone the professor might have told about his discovery, including his wife and child. First, though, he must acclimate to life as a human, which is naturally rife with confusion and frustration.

As the alien spends more time with these weird, wonderful, terrible, contradictory humans, empathy and understanding begins to seep in. Suddenly, the cold reason and logic that has always served as the guiding principles of his race don't make as much sense. The book is a bit too clinical at times, which is understandable coming from a narrator of pure practicality, but begins to wear after a while. Fortunately, it never sinks the book, which wound up being an enjoyable read, overall. It's always fun to see what authors get up to in their attempts to step outside the human experience and look in. We're among the few beings to have imaginations. We may as well put them to use.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane: B+
The Humans: B


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