Published by Hogarth on October 28, 2014
Genres: Science Fiction
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. Their trials lay bare a profound meditation on faith, love tested beyond endurance, and our responsibility to those closest to us.
Marked by the same bravura storytelling and precise language that made The Crimson Petal and the White such an international success, The Book of Strange New Things is extraordinary, mesmerizing, and replete with emotional complexity and genuine pathos.
It is my dream that within my lifetime, we will make contact with intelligent alien life. (Or more likely, they will make contact with us.) Sure, I’d like for them to treat us nicely and go easy on the anal probes, but all things considered, death by alien invasion wouldn’t be a bad way to go. I’m happy to read any author’s take on what human interaction with aliens might look like, and Michel Faber presents a story that is incredibly unique. In The Book of Strange New Things, there is no alien invasion. Instead, when the story opens, we have already made contact with aliens on a planet we’ve named Oasis. A U.S. corporation has set up a settlement and and engages in trade with the aliens: our drugs for their food. But the aliens now have a new request. They want a Christian minister to replace the one who mysteriously disappeared. Yes, these aliens are Christians. Peter accepts the mission, even though it will mean leaving his wife, Bea, behind on Earth.
I read this book about two weeks after Faber’s earlier book, Under the Skin. Because of my experience with that book, I kept waiting for something “Under the Skin-ish” to happen. (If you’ve read the book, you’ll know what I mean. If you haven’t, I won’t spoil you.) I labeled the book as science fiction, because with a setting on another planet populated by aliens, it seemed unavoidable. But this story is really more about Peter’s marriage, his faith, and his desire to share his faith with the aliens, who happen to be very eager sponges. This is one of the most religion-heavy books I’ve read, but as someone who is not at all religious, it managed to not be off-putting.
But as Peter becomes more focused, and possibly obsessive, on his mission, his marriage to Bea is faltering. Their only method of communication is via a form of email, and as Bea becomes increasingly distressed by things that are happening in her world, Peter is finding it harder to tear himself away from his alien congregation. I found so much beauty, at least initially, in Peter’s relationships with some of the individual aliens. They are gentle and kind, and for a minister, they are perfect pupils. But I began to question whether Peter’s dedication to his mission had more to do with serving his congregation or with something a little less altruistic. And even if he is not self-serving, how can I respect this man when he seems to content to sit back while his wife’s life seems to be falling apart? Peter struggles with these questions, too, and even if he doesn’t always do the right thing, he at least has the ability to ask himself the difficult questions.
I didn’t get nearly as many answers as I would have liked, but the story was written so beautifully, it was hard to mind.
Note: This review is based on a finished copy provided by the publisher.