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May 30

Book Review: The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber

What’s It About

Jesuits head off into space to make first contact with aliens and things go horribly wrong….

… no, that’s The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell…

A Christian missionary named Peter heads off into space to aid a community of aliens and things go horribly wrong… though less with the aliens and more with Peter’s relationship with his wife Bea who he leaves behind on Earth.*

Representative Paragraph

The first step on an alien world…

Peter stepped through the sliding door into the air of Oasis and, contrary to his apprehensions, he did not instantly die, get sucked into an airless vortex, or shrivel up like a scrap of fat on a griddle. Instead, he was enveloped in a moist, warm breeze, a swirling balm that felt like steam except that it didn’t make his throat catch. […] The rain had stopped now, but the atmosphere still seemed substantially composed of water. If he closed his eyes, he could almost imagine he’d waded into a warm swimming pool. The air lapped against his cheeks, tickled his ears, flowed over his lips and hands. It penetrated his clothing, breathing into the collar of his shirt and down his backbone, making his shoulderblades and chest dewy, making his shirtcuffs adhere to his wrists. The warmth – it was extreme warmth rather than heat – caused his skin to prickle with sweat, making him intimately aware of his armpit hair, the clefts of his groin, the shape of his toes inside their humid footwear.

Should I Read It?

Yes.

The Book of Strange New Things is a thoughtful if flawed novel.  As a science fiction tale about contact with an alien species it’s both dismissive of the mechanics of SF but takes the anthropology of a new culture very seriously.   As a novel about love and marriage it’s initially emotionally engaging – Bea is a wonderful character – but falls apart around two thirds of the way through as we grow increasingly irritated by Peter’s inability to comfort his wife beyond repetitive messages about faith in God.  And as an examination of religious devotion I think the novel takes the refreshing approach of not promoting or critiquing the impact of faith on the individual or a society.  It leaves that judgement up to the reader.

Commentary

The blurb to The Book of Strange New Things tip toes oh so carefully around its subject matter —

It begins with Peter, a devoted man of faith, as he is called to the mission of a lifetime, one that takes him galaxies away from his wife, Bea. Peter becomes immersed in the mysteries of an astonishing new environment, overseen by an enigmatic corporation known only as USIC. His work introduces him to a seemingly friendly native population struggling with a dangerous illness and hungry for Peter’s teachings…

Remove the word “galaxies” and the blurb could easily be describing a novel about the discovery of a new tribe in the Amazonian rain forest or a Micronesian island.  The avoidance of words like “planet” and “alien” further reinforce a seemingly deliberate move on the publisher to distance the novel from those dratted Sci-Fi cooties.  And Faber is complicit with this strategy by pointedly dismissing the mechanics of SF.  For example, he doesn’t bother to explain how “The Jump” works – the method USIC, the corporation that’s colonised Oasis, use to travel between this new world and Earth – other than some hand wavy stuff about how, like plane travel, this magic carpet gives you jet-lag.

Does it matter?  Not really.  My willing suspension of disbelief didn’t crumble because Faber failed to spend five pages detailing The Jump’s technical specifications.  Nor was I tearing out my hair trying to ascertain how USIC afforded the colony in the first place, given (a) the huge expense of sending anything into space, let alone a well equipped base (in terms of technology and personnel) and (b) the economic climate depicted in the novel, which would appear to be awful.  These gaps in the narrative washed over me like the extreme humidity of Oasis.

And to be fair to Faber, he doesn’t short change the reader on the anthropological aspects of the novel.  The aliens, the Oasan’s, are beautifully realised – both in terms of their physicality, their language and their motivations.  These are not Star Trek aliens with bumpy foreheads but rather —

Here was a face that was nothing like a face. Instead, it was a massive whitish-pink walnut kernel. Or no: even more, it resembled a placenta with two foetuses – maybe three-month-old twins, hairless and blind – nestled head to head, knee to knee. Their swollen heads constituted the Oasan’s clefted forehead, so to speak; their puny ribbed backs formed his cheeks, their spindly arms and webbed feet merged in a tangle of translucent flesh that might contain – in some form unrecognisable to him – a mouth, nose, eyes.

— and Faber has clearly thought through their language, using a sort of cuneiform to depict the way they communicate.

The Oasan’s religious devotion to Christ is not only surprising – both for Peter and the reader – but is handled with a great deal of intelligence and sensitivity.  What’s refreshing about The Book of Strange New Things is that it doesn’t take sides in regard to faith and devotion.  Yes, Bea has a crisis of faith and yes, Peter’s blind devotion becomes extremely irritating, but in context of Peter’s relationship with the aliens, there’s no sense that faith or belief in a higher being is a terrible thing that will actively harm the Oasans.  At the same time, there’s no indication that faith will elevate their lives or bring the Oasan’s what they desire (which I won’t spoil here because it’s a fascinating and revelatory moment).  Faber’s on-the-fence approach leaves it to the reader to make up their own mind.

The heart and soul of the novel – religious devotion aside – is Peter’s long distance relationship with his wife.  Both devout Christians they agreed to the idea of Peter taking this amazing journey.  But it steadily becomes clear that Bea always had her doubts, to the point that she never told Peter that she stopped taking contraception a month before he left.  Bea explains that “she did it out of love… and out of fear that [Peter] would die and there’d be nothing of [him] left.”  And yet you can’t help but feel that there’s an element of sabotage to the decision, the hope that when Peter finds she’s carrying his baby he will leave Oasis and come back home.  It’s this undercurrent of betrayal – I know we agreed that you should go, but why did you leave me? – that explodes into frustration, anger and a loss of faith for Bea as the economy and climate on Earth falls apart around her.

Unfortunately Peter is no comfort to his wife.  He doesn’t head back home when he discovers Bea is pregnant.  And he doesn’t head back home when the shit hits the fan back on Earth.  All he does is write the following type of sickly sweet message of blind faith.

Please try to reconnect with the love and protection that God has shown us in the past and which is waiting there to shield you now. Pray to Him. You won’t have to wait long for evidence of His hand. And if, in a few days, you still feel distraught, I will do my best to arrange to come home to you, even if it means forfeiting some of my payment.

The passive aggressive tone – even if it means forfeiting some of my payments – is grit your teeth annoying and coupled with this urgent suggestion that Bea rediscover her faith in God, it’s the last thing she wants to hear.  This comes out loud and clear in subsequent messages:

Peter, I’m only going to say this once. This experience is not educational. It is not instructive. It is not God moving in mysterious ways, it is not God figuring out exactly what sublime ultimate purpose can be served by me stepping on Joshua’s leg and everything after. The Saviour I believed in took an interest in what I did and how I behaved. The Saviour I believed in made things happen and stopped things happening. I was deluding myself. I am alone and frightened and married to a missionary who’s going to tell me that the fool has said in his heart there is no God, and if you don’t say it it will just be because you’re being diplomatic, because in your heart you’re convinced I made this happen through my faltering of faith, and that makes me feel even more alone. Because you’re not coming back to me, are you? You like it up there. Because you’re on Planet God. So even if you did come back to me, we still wouldn’t be together. Because in your heart you’d still be on Planet God, and I’d be a trillion miles away from you, alone with you by my side.

It’s passionate and it’s angry and the fact that it does very little to budge Peter’s belief that God will fix everything (he tempers the message but it’s still the overriding theme of his later letters to Bea) make it difficult to read the last third of the book.  Like Bea, I started to dislike Peter immensely, and while I’m sure this reaction on my part is what Faber is seeking, it doesn’t make those final 100 pages any more palatable.  The fact is that Bea emerges as the book’s most complex and interesting character.  Unfortunately both Peter and Faber have left her on Earth to struggle and suffer alone.

If there’s one thing that makes the last third a little easier to swallow, it’s Faber’s cynical take on the colonisation of other planets.  Throughout the novel Peter has observed the lack of joie de vivre in those who crew the base.  Everyone is competent in their job.  Everyone is pleasant.  But no-one seems to care about what’s going on on Earth or has an opinion on any subject beyond their work.  Much later in the book Peter comes across one of the missing crew members, a linguist named Tartaglione, who everyone believes has gone native, but is actually holing up in the ruins of a previous Oasan campsite.  With manic energy Tartaglione tells Peter that USIC has taken a pod-people approach to colonisation.  And when it to comes to populating the planet…

Who’s gonna come . . . Who’s gonna come. Muy interesante! Can’t have vipers in the nest, can we? Can’t have crazies and parasites and saboteurs. Only nice, well-adjusted folks need apply. Except – get this – you’ll need to pay your fare. I mean, there’s a time for planting and a time for reaping, right? USIC can’t invest for ever; time to cash in. So who’s gonna come? The poor schlub who works in the 7-Eleven? I don’t think so. USIC’s gonna have to take the filthy-rich folks – but not the assholes and the prima donnas, no no no, the nice ones with the salt-of-the-earth values. Multi-millionaires who give up their seat on the bus. Tycoons who are happy to hand-wash their T-shirts ’cause, you know, they wouldn’t want to waste electricity. Yeah, I can see it now. Step right up, book early for fucking Raptureland.’

I not only found the idea that future space colonies – if such a thing is even possible – will be populated by a bunch of rich boring people very funny but it also rang suspiciously true.

At 2,000 words this review of The Book of Strange New Things is far too long and probably needs a decent edit.  But the length is also indicative of a book that provokes discussion, even if it doesn’t entirely work as a novel.

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* I’m aware that comparing The Book of Strange New Things with The Sparrow isn’t particularly enlightening or funny, but I couldn’t help myself.

2 comments

  1. Alex

    A Protestant in space! very exciting. I found the gradual revelation of Peter’s personality very interesting, and very clever. I was highly amused to buy this in the Literature section of Readings, and couldn’t help but think of Sad Puppies and their “we’re being taken over by Litritchur!” cry. I also can’t help but wonder whether Beatrice was so named for Dante’s Beatrice… Peter is so obvious, as a name.

    1. Mondyboy

      I liked him when he was less clueless and more pro-active. His poor treatment of Bea – while I understand a deliberate feature of the book – made the last third hard to read.

      It’s not just the Sad Puppies who get upset by the co-opting of SF themes by Literature. But they can stuff their anxieties in a sack. Personally, I think it gives the genre a fresh outlook, even if it isn’t always successful.

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