On The Book of Strange New Things

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A genre-bending sci-fi story of evangelizing extraterrestrial life on a far off planet, Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things never feels as out of this world as you would expect – in a good way. The novel follows Peter, a Christian minister sent by an enigmatic corporation to bring the word of God to native aliens on the planet Oasis. Contrary to what this meager plot outline may seem to suggest, however, Faber’s book is largely ground in very human struggles and emotions, rather than the mysteries of outer space.

I will admit that Peter was the one who got me hooked. The story takes its time coming to life due to the density of Faber’s prose, and it was my affinity for the protagonist that kept me reading when I wasn’t sure where the story would lead, let alone if I would be much interested once it got there. The reveal of Peter’s big mission is withheld from audiences for a seemingly long time – we know he and his wife Bea are anxious about an impending, indefinite amount of time spent apart; we learn that Peter is proud to have been selected for his mysterious mission after a rigorous selection process, full of grueling interviews; and we receive tidbits hinting at the evangelical nature of his new position. But what USIC (the acronym for the corporation sending him to Oasis) even stands for, where Peter will actually find himself after his flight from home, what characteristics led to his selection, the fact that his mission involves traveling to another planet – all these crucial details elude readers for so long that I found myself questioning whether to even get involved in the novel much further. Fortunately, I pushed through.

Upon arriving on Oasis, Peter first struggles to connect with the various personnel around him at the base complex operated by USIC. In particular, Alexandra Grainger who functions as both community pharmacist and Peter’s personal guide, remains frustratingly elusive but also represents Peter’s best chance at understanding this strange new place. Supplying Peter with only the most vague and noncommittal information about the Oasans as possible, Grainger takes Peter to his first encounter with the natives. Lucky for Peter, the Oasans are surprisingly eager for the teachings of Christ. In fact, they identify themselves by the name “Jesus Lover” followed by a number identifying the order in which these Oasans came to Christ.

Peter starts to get comfortable on Oasis as he settles for a few days (and these are lengthy days as the Oasan sky’s cycle is much longer than that of planet Earth) with the Oasans, alternated with a few days back on base. Despite the humid air from which the Oasan settlement offers no respite, the sea of indistinguishable fetus-like faces the Oasans present to their religious leader, and the strange tongue in which they speak, Peter experiences a feeling of great calm among the natives, priding himself on starting to know them as a people and to understand them as individuals. In stark contrast, there is an atmosphere of doom looming whenever Peter finds himself on the USIC base. I was filled with a constant sense of foreboding simply reading these scenes, always fearing that the true, sordid reason the corporation brought Peter to Oasis was about to be revealed. I had a gut feeling that the actual nature of USIC’s work on the planet was not as they had originally revealed to Peter (although there never was an especially specific reasoning offered), that we would discover something much more dark and horrible when the truth finally came out.

While Peter has a surprisingly easy time communicating and engaging with the native Oasans, he encounters great trouble in connecting effectively via “the Shoot” (essentially, a computer with email access only) with his wife Bea back at home. The two find themselves growing ever more emotionally distant while Bea describes scenes from an increasingly chaotic planet Earth, changes which Peter can barely comprehend while so far away and, perhaps even worse, from which he cannot protect his left-behind wife as she needs.

Peter’s tense exchanges with his wife, his incrementally-increasing knowledge about USIC, and his heightened sense of comfort with the natives come to a head that is neither highly surprising nor profound, but satisfying for readers to arrive at nonetheless given all the work it took us to get there. It seemed that Peter’s relationship with the Oasans was supposed to abruptly change in the end, but instead I felt a sort of gradual falling apart leading up to it. And when we uncover the true nature of USIC, it struck me as far less monumental and not nearly as horrible as Faber made readers previously fear. Although I was underwhelmed with the conclusion to this novel (most specifically, a late series of events that Faber tries to arrange as an epiphany of sorts), the weakness of its ending did not undermine the pleasure of reading all that came before. In fact, the very length of the book may have been the reason why its ending felt so pale; in a sea of so much information, the climax felt lost.

The novel clocks in at a daunting 500 pages and while it doesn’t suffer for its length, Faber could have sacrificed his verbose and lurid description of Peter’s experience on Oasis to produce a far slimmer volume. But I appreciated the attention he devoted to some of the more seemingly mundane aspects of this other world setting – his efforts at creating a beautiful, detailed picture of Oasis truly pay off.

I’m not much of a sci-fi reader, but there were aspects of life on Oasis that I found truly fantastical, set alongside other elements that were wholly unimaginative. Peter’s inability to define gender on this planet was a very interesting consideration of extraterrestrial life to include. Despite repeated attempts to understand whether Oasans considered themselves male or female, Peter continually failed to garner a true response on this point from any of the Jesus Lovers. Faber’s exploration of how a different species of life, one that does procreate (we even witness an Oasan give birth in one scene), experiences gender, if they do at all, was a pretty fascinating trip. Peter also describes a mystical, dancing type of rain that creates musical, rhythmic sounds as it patters on the rooftops. Faber’s descriptions of Oasan rain were the type of image that I always love and hate in equal parts in literature; I’m captivated by the unreal beauty described, but find my imagination falling short in its ability to fully picture the author’s vision. Its times like these when I yearn for a movie or some other visual to supplement the gorgeous written description provided.

But on the other hand, the Oasans’ settlement felt way too Earth-like for me to readily accept. True, the buildings had no real doors or windows and they were low and squat, without the ambitious height of metropolitan and suburban dwellings these days. But still, the architecture of the place was described in such terms as to make me picture Adobe houses on a desert plain, rather than a literally out of this world community of homes. The fact that some Oasans could speak English, despite difficulties with their “s” and “t” sounds, seemed remarkably under-explained. Although the community previously had contact with other USIC staff that purportedly taught the natives English, the depth of their knowledge of the language as well as their ability to read it was distractingly dubious, enough to take my mind out of the story in order to muddle over these doubts.

One of the book’s greatest strengths lies in how Faber never offers any type of judgment, good or bad, regarding Peter’s strength of faith. Rather, the fact that his protagonist is a devoted Christian missionary is presented plainly, unemotionally, factually. Certainly there are moral dilemmas that Peter muddles through under the guidance of religion, and his faith comes through in conversation with the USIC staff as well as the Oasans, but readers are not encouraged to look down upon Peter as a naive God-lover, nor to uphold him as a perfect Christian specimen. I certainly liked Peter, respected him and hoped that only the best would come to him, but I was pleasantly surprised by the way Faber treated his main character, given the outline of Peter’s persona. As we near the book’s end, Faber inches ever so slightly toward a higher level of judgment about religion, but only through the direct thoughts and actions of Peter and Bea, never in terms of how the author treats his characters. I found Faber’s whole relationship with his protagonist and his corresponding religious views rather fascinating.

Flawed but compelling, inventive but not wholly so, Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things is a solid good read, an opportunity to be transported to another world in the truest sense of the phrase. While I wasn’t completely blown away with this one, I was eager to continue reading, not just because there was so much to get through, but rather because it was so enjoyable to dwell with Peter in Faber’s Oasis.