Author Matt Haig.

Author Matt Haig.

The Humans
Matt Haig
Canongate, $27.99 

One of the writing myths Matt Haig deplores is that literary fiction is serious while genre fiction is not. A joke on his website serves as a fine summary of his own method: "Lock lit fic and genre in the same hotel room with only one bed and keep them there and see what happens."

His previous novel, The Radleys, was a likeable enough tale of a family of vampires attempting to live a dull suburban life in 21st-century England. His latest turns to science fiction for inspiration, but is finally a very personal search for a reason to exist at all.

<em>The Humans</em> by Matt Haig.

The Humans by Matt Haig.

Cambridge professor Andrew Martin is eliminated by a superior alien race after he finds a mathematical proof that will take humanity to a new stage of technological evolution. He's replaced by the novel's narrator, a Spock-like being in Martin's body sent to kill anyone who may have been privy to the professor's equation. As always happens, the alien becomes beguiled by the messy and limited world of the humans and his whole mission goes off the rails, while the real Professor Martin turns out to have been somewhat less than an ideal specimen himself.

Like many of his contemporaries, Haig seems wary of being seen as overly mannered or stylistic, and the result is a friendly, comedic tone I wish were more ambitious. It's Nick Hornby when it could be closer to Douglas Adams, as the occasional paragraph hints.

"You arrived," he writes of human life, "with baby feet and hands and infinite happiness, and then the happiness slowly evaporated as your feet and hands grew bigger. And then, from the teenage years onwards, happiness was something you could lose your grip of, and once it started to slip it gained mass. It was as if the knowledge that it could slip was the thing that made it more difficult to hold, no matter how big your feet and hands were."

Haig wrote the novel in response to his own breakdown more than a decade ago, and it's a sort of letter to his depressed and anxious 24-year-old self, pleading the virtues of life among the humans. At its worst this leads to a chapter of aphorisms that reads like discards from Alain de Botton's notepad. ("Language is euphemism. Love is truth.")

But for the most part Haig's alien makes a pretty decent case for life on our pale blue dot in the universe.