The Book Of Strange New Things – Michel Faber
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—his Bible is their “book of strange new things.” But Peter is rattled when Bea’s letters from home become increasingly desperate: typhoons and earthquakes are devastating whole countries, and governments are crumbling. Bea’s faith, once the guiding light of their lives, begins to falter.
Suddenly, a separation measured by an otherworldly distance, and defined both by one newly discovered world and another in a state of collapse, is threatened by an ever-widening gulf that is much less quantifiable. While Peter is reconciling the needs of his congregation with the desires of his strange employer, Bea is struggling for survival.
Review: Oh, this book is complicated. I love it, but I was bored. How does that happen?
The main character, Peter, is a Christian missionary who is selected to travel to a planet called Oasis. The last missionary disappeared, and the natives are demanding a replacement from the human company that has taken over their planet. Peter leaves his wife, Bea, behind on Earth. At first, things on Oasis go well. Peter’s employer gives him everything he needs, even though he doesn’t understand what the company does. The natives are excited to learn about the Bible (which they call “The Book of Strange New Things”). As Peter settles in on Oasis, Bea’s life on Earth goes downhill. A series of natural disasters causes the governments of several countries to collapse.
“The world changes too fast. You take your eyes off something that's always been there, and the next minute it's just a memory.” – The Book of Strange New Things
I have to start out by saying that this isn’t Christian fiction. Peter is a missionary, and religion is discussed, but it’s not the focus of the story.
The Book of Strange New Things is a literary science fiction novel. I haven’t read many of those. The plot is pretty much nonexistent, but the atmosphere and world-building are on-point. The ironically named “Oasis” is a believable desert planet. It’s flat and mostly empty with no landmarks except what humans/natives have built. Peter arrives on Oasis at night, and the pitch blackness of the planet creates a sense of anticipation in the reader. What bizarre things will Peter find when he starts exploring? That anticipation is present through most of the book. Oasis is a weird place that just keeps getting weirder.
The natives are also mysterious. The author must have put an amazing amount of work into developing their culture. Admittedly, I haven’t read a ton of alien-based science fiction, but the culture of the Oasis “people” strikes me as realistic. It’s different enough from human culture to be interesting, but not so different that it’s unrelatable. Actually, I got attached to the natives. I was slightly devastated when Peter figured out why they want to be Christian. I didn’t see that coming.
This is a story about communication and miscommunication. Peter and Bea are apart for the first time in their marriage. Email is their only way of communicating. They quickly discover that they can no longer relate to each other’s experiences. Bea doesn’t understand Peter’s struggles with the natives or the effect Oasis’s atmosphere has on his body. Peter doesn’t understand how much Bea is suffering while the government of England (their home country) collapses. Peter celebrates spreading Christianity to the natives while Bea is losing her faith in God.
After I finished this novel, I learned that the author’s wife was dying from cancer while he was writing it. I wonder if that had any influence on the themes?
There are so many layers of miscommunication in this story. The natives don’t understand “self,” “gender,” or “emotion.” They’ve never seen Earth. Peter basically has to rewrite the Bible to help them understand the ideas behind it.
The employees at the company that is colonizing Oasis aren’t sure why their employer is interested in the planet. Oasis doesn’t seem to have much going for it. The owners of the company are on Earth, and the employees are on Oasis. There’s isn’t much communication between them. The employees are just expected to do their assigned jobs without asking questions.
“These days, the bigger the company, the less you can figure out what it does.” – The Book of Strange New Things
The most interesting level of miscommunication happens between the text and the reader. The natives’ language is written in symbols. When they speak English, it’s a mixture of English words and alien symbols. Sometimes, I had no clue what they were saying. It’s a very effective way to capture Peter’s disorientation.
“There was a red button on the wall labelled EMERGENCY, but no button labelled BEWILDERMENT.” – The Book of Strange New Things
Obviously, this novel gave me a lot to think about. For a 600-page book, I finished it quickly, but I still found myself getting bored fairly often. I especially got frustrated with Peter and Bea’s emails. Most of the emails are long and repetitive. I didn’t care about them. There are also long stretches of time where Peter isn’t doing anything. He’s just lying around, feeling sick from the atmosphere and strange food.
I still had tons of questions when the book ended. I can’t tell you what they are because of spoilers, but I was hoping that more of Oasis’s mysteries would be solved. The novel has a non-ending. It just stops.
So, I have mixed feelings. The Book of Strange New Things has the atmospheric weirdness that I love, but it also disappointed me. If it had been shorter and less open-ended, it might have become one of my favorite books ever.