3 December 2014

Review: The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber

The Book of Strange New Things
Michel Faber
Canongate, October 2014
Hardback, 584 pages 

I bought this book from our local independent bookshop.

I have been looking forward to reading more Michel Faber for years and years.

Like his last book, The Fire Gospel, published in 2009, "Strange New Things" has an ostensibly religious theme.  Peter is a missionary, recruited by the inscrutable USIC organisation, a private company or foundation carrying out space exploration.  We never learn what the initials stand for, or much else about USIC, except that it seems to have very deep pockets, having bought out NASA's former assets following a worldwide financial crash.  USIC send Peter to a far planet to minister to the planets's indigenous people.  It isn't immediately clear why USIC wants a missionary - though we do learn eventually that it's not a "Bible in one hand, gun in the other" situation: the Oasans (or at least, some of them) have demanded a replacement for Peter's predecessor.  They are keen to hear more of the Book of Strange New Things (which is what they call the Bible). Again, we are (eventually) told why, but for much of the book it's a puzzle; Peter seems to have just too easy a time as a missionary with his willing and receptive flock and a supportive "employer" (the crew on Oasis are ordered to give him pretty much whatever he wants).

In other ways, he doesn't have such a good time.  The crew are cooperative, but emotionally distant.  Peter seems abstracted, continually forgetting what he has been told or done. Due to his forgetfulness, we're sometimes placed into situations cold, adding to the sense of weirdness that Faber skilfully applies to his alien planet - as if rain that gently explores one's body, or a featureless planet where the only landmarks seem to be regular, predictable storms weren't odd enough already.  Mysteries abound - why did the Oasans (who are friendly and happy to trade with the humans) up sticks and move their settlement 50 miles away from close to the human base?

On Earth, where Peter's wife, Bea, is left behind, things are even worse.  A string of disasters unfolds - earthquakes, tsunamis, more financial collapse, food shortages - which we only hear of secondhand through her messages to him.  (No answer is given as to whether these disasters are somehow related). There are also personal crises and tragedies. The USIC people at the base seem to be screened from these, and show little interest when Peter tries to tell them: but he also loses interest quickly, absorbed by his work among the Oasans - which takes him away for weeks at a time from the machine that mediates between him and Bea. (And why is this device limited to text messages? Why won't cameras work on Oasis?)

So a gulf grows between husband and wife, with Bea's messages increasingly perplexed, angry and despairing and Peter's increasingly cold.  He appears, in fact, very much a cold fish altogether and of the two it is Bea I found easier to relate to, Bea who I wanted to hear more about, Bea who is, frankly, more interesting.  She appears both more active than Peter - we hear a lot about the people she is helping, the difficulties in her daily life, the plans she is making.  Peter, in contrast, mooches off to stay with his congregation without even considering that he might need to take supplies with him.  Frankly, he appears selfish. Not a likeable protagonist at all - yet an interesting one.  I don't think I was ever sure whether he is desperately sad but suppressing his feelings in order to serve God; whether he is really as shallow as he seems; or whether he is playing a manipulative part (from snatches of information about Peter's earlier life this seems distinctly likely).

It's an intriguing book, a great slab of what comes over as very realist SF.  We hear almost nothing of how the spacecraft can reach Oasis; as I said above, the disasters are never explained and while the alien civilisation is imagined very well there's almost no context, no setting: we have no idea where Oasis is.  There is a here and a there. Oasis and Earth, that's all.  Is it even a new planet?  The description of the journey, the limited communications, constrained information, did make me wonder if the whole thing was an elaborate hoax, set up in a warehouse somewhere on Earth.  But the Oasans don't really fit that idea, even before one considers their bizarre language, represented in the book by its own symbols.

It isn't always an easy read.  One block for many will be Peter's (and Bea's) evangelicalism. What is Peter actually doing on Oasis and what does he think he'll achieve? I'm a Christian, but not that kind of Christian. I found myself wanting to shake him and ask "Look at what you're losing! Look at all you could be doing at home on Earth! What is the point?"

Peter's mindset is more alien to me, frankly, than that of the "alien" Oasans.  So Faber has aleady created  distance there.  I think it's brave of him to write something that uses religion as a motivating factor like this given how secular society is now. Like "the Crimson Petal and the White" there is a sense of Victorian-ness about the outlook. (Of course, The Fire Gospel also took religion seriousness, and Under the Skin set up an encounter with aliens that was in many ways a diabolical inversion of Peter's gentle preaching).

There's so much more I could say about the book - from its sheer physical beauty (the white dustjacket, with gold embossed patterns and the title also embossed on the board cover, resembles a wedding or baptism Bible) to its length (plenty to get stuck into but the pages fly by) to the enigmatic hints about Peter's and Bea's troubled early life - but I will I think just end up gushing.  This book simply bowled me over, and you should read it, if you like strange new things - and who doesn't?


  1. I read this book when it was shortlisted for the Clarke Award, and two years after I still don't know what to make of it. As you said, his evangelism really jarred (I'm an agnostic). And it felt as if the novel was neither here nor there: the Oasans were fascinating, but because Peter nonetheless remains a stranger we won't know enough, the Earth situation remains in the background... And I think in the end that's what the focus was: Peter being neither nor there. It didn't bowl me over, it really felt 'meh' at the time but if two years after I still feel the need to comment on it, it means that it certainly stayed with me!

  2. There IS a lot left hanging. A more conventional SF novel would I suppose spend a lot of time tying off what happended on earth, how the travel was done, what became of the Oasans: Faber doesn't and I'm sure that's deliberate. It's a book that you need to mull over, perhaps (as you have!)