The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber

bookofstrangenewthingsPeter Leigh, an English preacher, travels billions of miles from Earth to the newfound desert planet, Oasis. His mission: to bring the word of Christ to the alien inhabitants. Yet he is not beset by your average challenges for missionaries — mistrust, lack of communication, customs. Indeed, the oasans are incredibly receptive to the Bible, which they call The Book of Strange New Things.

Meanwhile, Peter’s wife Bea is sending letters describing increasing worldwide catastrophe occurring back on Earth…

This book is fantastic. I was invested in Peter, the eminently hopeful, kind of weak, kind of bumbling protagonist, even while groaning through his boneheaded mistakes (generally involving communication with his wife). I loved the people of Oasis, both its native inhabitants and its hodgepodge group of damaged human immigrants. The people are colorful, as they should be. It’s a baldy science-fiction book that will be marketed as straight literature or ‘genre-defying’. I guess the genre defying part is smart character study and stellar prose. Which reinforces exclusion of sci-fi as unserious, but whatever.

Faber’s sentence-level craft is superb. His character work subtly reveals much without smashing you over the head — he understands the difference between the main point-of-view character’s perception of another character, and how that character actually is. The plot is smooth, moving between nail-biting tension and balmy contemplation. There was a point in the book where I knew something bad had happened to Peter’s wife, and as a careful reader, I had a good idea of what had happened — I read a lot of books and watch a lot of movies, and I’m usually proven right — but no, Faber was in complete control and knew what I was thinking and actually it was a different bad thing that was set up just as well. The dialogue sounds like real people. The epistolary relationship between Peter and Bea reads like a separated couple unused to separation (“The cat misses you!”) and not like the astounding wordsmithery that often permeates letter-correspondence in novels. OK, at least Possession had the excuse that the letter-writers were poets. Peter and Bea’s letters are warm, chilling, tense, not boring as they might have been in lesser hands.

The planet of Oasis, bland at outside appearance, is richly described. It’s very easy and comfortable to feel like you’re there, amidst the green swirling rain and flat horizon. The fleshy-headed, berobed natives, who I feel guilty calling ‘aliens’ even for the purpose of this review (instead of what they are: people), go from strange and off-putting to almost unbearably endearing. They fulfill their sci-fi ascribed role as a foil for humans, while remaining their own distinct entity, who will be living amongst the stars on faraway Oasis long after the book is closed.

It’s rare in science fiction, indeed rare in anything but Christian fiction, that a book intelligently integrates faith into its narrative. Typically religion is a boogeyman or otherwise The Answer To All Things. Peter is devout, but not hardline in his beliefs. The Bible is open to interpretation. Other beliefs should be respected. The novel itself does not lend final credence or doubt to religion, though it does leave me wishing God were real, if not for humans, at least for the oasan’s sake. Instead, it is concerned with major Christian tenets that concern everyone. Notions of mercy, and forgiveness, and redemption. Regardless of faith, as humans we must realize people are capable of terrible, cruel things and just as capable of turning their life around and doing wonderful and compassionate things. The question is how to live with these people, how to forgive or understand them, or conversely how to live with yourself if you are one. God is an answer, but not the only one. And even in the absence of God, it’s worth investigating why singing Amazing Grace in unison is powerful.

(Thanks to Netgalley and Crown Publishing for hooking me up! This advanced-reader-copy thing is working out for me lately.)

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