Published by Hogarth
Publication date: October 28th 2014
Pastor Peter Leigh is being given the spiritual chance of a lifetime: he’s been chosen to travel billions of miles to a new planet and bring Christianity to its inhabitants. The planet is called Oasis and is managed by a global corporation, USIC. The Book of Strange New Things, the latest novel from Michel Faber, chronicles Peter’s mission and his attempts to stay connected to his wife Beatrice who has informed him, shortly after his arrival at the new planet, that she is pregnant.
Oasis is an interesting planet in that it is habitable for humans but is different enough from Earth to provide its own challenges. By the time Peter arrives there is a colony of humans in place whose main focus is making the planet more livable for more humans. Once Peter is acclimated he is taken to the settlement where the native population lives. There he finds no hostility or disinterest, but a group so happy to see him that they welcome him with their own version of “Amazing Grace”. They are small and with a human shape but with a head Peter describes as “a massive whitish-pink walnut kernel”. It’s impossible to determine any facial features and whatever they use to talk gives them a limited ability to speak English but Peter is immediately taken in by them and begins his work to build a church.
Faber places the reader into Peter’s surroundings so gently, so carefully that it takes time for us to realize what Peter himself realizes and that is that the base is completely isolated from Earth in every way. There are no current publications discussing world events, no newspapers, and electricity is such a valuable commodity that there is no TV. The only nod to communication is a basic form of email. Everything is bland and each of the personnel has been hand-picked because of very specific skills. The place is so emotionally sterile and carefully controlled that there is no alcohol, no weapons, no security, no relationships—and no one cares. The work of building this new outpost is all that seems to matter. Peter is the only employee who has a relationship back on Earth. With each page Faber builds a sense of disconnection that is eerie.
This gulf shows up on a personal level as Peter and Bea try to navigate their separation through email. Peter learns that life on Earth is failing as Bea’s letters become ever more frantic—climate change, economic collapse in certain countries and martial law in others. And yet he is largely unmoved by this news and continues to write about his new life among the Oasans.
It was true he felt no anger, but he felt disturbingly little of anything else either, aside from stress at his inability to respond. It was difficult, in his current circumstances, to grab hold of feelings and brand them with a name. If he tried his hardest, he could just about make sense of what was happening on Oasis, but that was because he and the events he was grappling with were in the same space. His mind and heart were trapped in his body, and his body was here.
The Book of Strange New Things (which is what the Oasans call the Bible) moves at this dichotomous pace throughout, growing more confusing as time passes. We read of Bea’s increasing distress at what is happening to her but it is played off against Peter’s dreamy apathy. The colony is established and runs with no help from him. There is no great conflict and he faces none of the challenges that most missionaries face. He’s in no physical danger and if anything, he’s embraced and welcomed. Life on Oasis is very different than it is on planet Earth but it is certainly not filled with the kind of science fiction danger we would expect in a futuristic novel. Instead, all of the danger and drama is taking place back on earth where Beatrice has been left alone, but her story is secondary and the novel’s focus is on Peter who is, in some ways, bored. He is a missionary but has not brought Jesus to this alien population. A previous pastor did and now these benign beings want only to hear about Jesus from the same few Bible stories being told over and over. Bea is the emotional focus of the story but not the narrative.
Faber plays with these conflicting scenarios throughout The Book of Strange New Things. Peter’s purpose on Oasis is unclear and yet, as he learns of the dangers facing his wife, he makes no efforts to go home. He is supposed to be strengthening the Oasans’ Christianity but they do not have the linguistic capabilities to understand much of the Bible or its spiritual meaning. Space is the place of danger but it is earth that is falling apart. These disparities may be Faber’s intent but they do not come together in a way that resolves the contradictions. The lack of action and emotion left me the same way—a bit apathetic and without strong feelings about the story. The Book of Strange New Things will be read start to finish because Faber is a gifted stylist and the planet Oasis and its people are easy to see in his capable hands but what is being conveyed in the novel is not as clear.
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