Michel Faber has a title so strong that it was enough for me to buy the book on that alone: The Book of Strange New Things. Set in some fantasy parallel but not-so-distant future, Peter Leigh has been selected to take a humanitarian mission into deep space, taking him light-years away from his wife Bea. As Peter gets further and further into this new world and his mission, Bea’s world back home is falling apart. It’s an intriguing premise, an absorbing idea, but deeply flawed in its telling.
The planet, named Oasis, for his mission is astonishing. Under the employment of the mysterious part-government, part-NASA, part-interplanetary commercial corporation known only as USIC, it is vivid and terrifying and so completely unknown. Faber has conjured a world scary in its unfamiliarity, with such depth and precision of description. It is endlessly flat, with ‘days’ that last for days, looks dead but the atmosphere seems so alive.
“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.”
It is a thing to behold, this world, and the wonder of it really strikes Peter. In combination with his eager, peaceful flock, there is a lot to be grateful for here. Meanwhile, his wife Bea seems so be witnessing the slow but definite destruction of earth, through means terrifyingly familiar to the contemporary reader. You don’t have to take away much in society before it starts to crumble. Her fear, her anger, his whole new world of discovery and work: how can a previously dedicated marriage maintain its closeness?
What is not mentioned on the blurb of this book is the religious element of this book: The Book of Strange New Things is the Bible; the humanitarian mission is actually a religious one. This is not necessarily a problem with a book, but it seems odd that such an essential element of the story and a key part of the lead character’s makeup is excluded from its promotion. Peter is a Christian pastor, and the whole premise of this journey is to provide a priest to the local native population of this new planet human’s are inhabiting. It turns out that it is not the humans who want pastoral care, but the aliens. It is slowly revealed that there has been a previous minister, and the population has taken innocently, immediately to the word of God. This minister is no longer here, no longer spoken of; and to to maintain ongoing relationships between the two species, the humans have promised another missionary.
But at about this point, I’m done with Faber’s book. I love the premise, I love the world, and I feel like I could get so much out of this story, but Peter’s stupidity and selfishness, the stodgy narration and dialogue, and the listless conclusion just leave you hanging. Peter is an idiot, inconsiderate and selfish; to his wife, to his fellow humans on Oasis, to the aliens. We spend so much time with this person who is supposed to be an intergalactic saviour, so surely USIC could have picked someone a little less self absorbed. Some of his observations are so disgustingly sexist – how can this contemporary/future man of the cloth be so thoughtlessly judgemental? – and he is just so endlessly concerned with his own projects without even lifting his head to see if they are wanted by his flock, that he just wanders into self-destruction. It bugged me a lot: he abandons his wife, he ignores all advice, he destroys himself, to get what? Not to get a good ending, I can tell you.
You can forgive a lot of flaws in a book, if it’s worth it. We accept a million little compromises along the way if the story is worth it, if the character is intelligent, if the plot is racy. Here, there were just too many problems. If the premise intrigues you, perhaps you can tolerate spending time with Peter more than I can. There was so much in the set up, I just wish The Book of Strange New Things actually delivered on them.