Professor Andrew Martin has just solved the Riemann hypothesis, one of the most important, unsolved mathematical problems. A distant planet, Vonnadoria, sends an assassin to kill him and destroy all evidence of his discovery. This is how we meet our narrator, in Professor Martin’s body but with none of his memories and only a theoretical knowledge of the human race. He is naked, on the motorway, and doesn’t yet have a strong grip on the language. His first attempt to learn about life on Earth involves reading a copy of Cosmopolitan, injecting a thread of humour that will be woven throughout. Armed with his new knowledge and what he’s picked up about social interaction from the way in which passing drivers have reacted to him he tries to find his way to Cambridge and work out who knows about the discovery.
The alien’s motives are a point of ambiguity – are the Vonnadorians trying to stop the technological advancement of humans for sinister reasons or for their own good? A lot of mathematical geniuses are driven mad in their pursuit of knowledge and he reasons that by deleting all evidence of the discovery, which would have led to mathematical advancement exceeding their psychological maturity, he’s saving more lives. This is a logical conclusion for someone from a planet where individual desires are sacrificed for the collective good. He doesn’t have a very high opinion of humans, however, judging them to be vain, greedy, and violent, and he seems to have no qualms about leaving the paramedics who came to look after him after he was hit by a car writhing in pain. Later in the novel he experiences some kind of guilt about the advancement he has prevented by deleting this breakthrough.
Slightly ironic that he judges humans for their own sense of superiority whilst treating them as vastly inferior to his own race. The moment when his opinions of the species begin to change is when he experiences music and poetry. He realizes that humans are aware of their flaws and that they use art as a way to reconnect with their nature. Eventually, he seems to come to respect humans for their ability to cope with their own mortality and for their courage to love despite the inevitable pain it causes.
At no point is there a lengthy description of Vonnadora; we are given snippets of information as the story progresses. We learn that it is a kind of paradise where life is effortless and there is no pain or death. The shift in our narrator’s opinions show us that the idea of perfection is flawed and that a lot can be lost in creating such an existence. This seems to be the main message – that pain is a necessary part of the human experience and that to truly appreciate love and happiness you have to have known pain.
This is a book that deals with some big ideas but don’t be fooled in to thinking the author spends the entire time philosophising. The story is interesting and you come to care the characters as their histories are revealed. There is a slow release of information about the real Andrew Martin which does not paint him in the most positive light. You’re forced to think about how the way you behave impacts on those around you (and hope that if your body was taken over by an alien your loved ones wouldn’t think it an improvement!). The ninety-seven point list of advice for humans may seem to some slightly over-done but there’s some solid advice from an author who has clearly thought deeply about the human condition. The pitch-perfect humour means that it never becomes a dense read. It’s rare to find a book that is so easy to read but also makes you question the way you see the world. For anyone who has ever felt the depths of despair it is a reminder that the pain makes you appreciate the beauty of life, and it is ultimately a hopeful story.