“It begins with Peter, a devoted man of faith, as he is called to the mission of a lifetime.” Thus boasted a blurb on the back of the book. When folks talk religion, I often get squeamish – especially when they speak with missionary zeal. So when someone handed me The Book of Strange New Things, I held it between thumb and forefinger in much the same way one handles hazardous waste.
Boy, was I in for a surprise. For starters, the novel opens with a sex scene that quickly turns awkward and becomes essential to the plot:
They reached for each other, aiming for a smooth embrace, but their hands were clumsy in the dark… Confined and uncomfortable, with his toes knocking against the window and his knees chafing on the furry viscose of the car seat, Peter did his best, but the rhythm and angle weren’t right and he misjudged how much longer she needed and how long he could last. (p. 9)
And then there’s the cast of characters, which includes the denizens of a distant planet colonized by Earth. Instead of hostile or menacing, Oasans are fragile: one nick or scratch to the body may result in death. Far from charismatic, our hero (Peter) is an ex-addict who came to religion late in life. No one knows why the colonizers (a mysterious group called USIC), chose him from among Earth’s many candidates to preach the Gospel in outer space. In fact, the human techno-geeks who live on Oasis are atheists to a one. We wonder why USIC wants a missionary at all.
This is not your mother’s science fiction. In fact, some critics claim the work does not belong to that genre, but rather to Speculative Writing (fiction with futuristic elements). I am tempted to claim the book as Post-Colonial: author Michel Faber spends very few words describing the technology which enables Peter to “jump” from Earth to Oasis and even less time narrating what the colonists do. There are hints about mining ore and harnessing energy, but nothing is specific. The book’s real focus lies elsewhere – in the tension between events back home (not good) and Peter’s work with the Oasans (very good).
As often happens with Earthbound colonists, Peter is tempted to “go bush”:
Soon he was dripping wet and slightly dizzy from watching the patterns swirl before him. So, to give his eyes a rest, he did what the Oasans did: he stood with his head craned back, mouth open, and let the rain fall straight in. Drink the downpour direct from the source. (p. 278)
As in many novels with post-colonial themes (Things Fall Apart, Island Beneath the Sea, The White Woman on the Green Bicycle) the story raises questions concerning who is really in charge. Most USIC personnel treat the Oasans with a measure of disgust. Yet late in the novel we learn how their help is crucial for the colony to survive.
Back on Earth, the situation has turned chaotic: extreme weather events all over the world have destroyed infrastructure and possibly civilization itself. As Peter and wife (Beatrice) correspond through a form of interstellar email called “the shoot,” we watch the emotional distance between them grow. Peter’s success with Oasans makes it hard for him to grasp what is happening, while Beatrice fights for her life.
The real story here is Peter’s struggle to make a choice: For reasons we do not quite understand, Oasans are most receptive to the message he brings. The planet’s mysterious landscape and weather patterns (rain manifests in spirals, each day lasts 72 hours) are seductive and sensuous. And there is no guarantee that Peter will find his wife. Under those circumstances, should he travel back to Earth and search for Bea?
The book has some faults: As I initially feared, Faber devotes a great many words to Biblical interpretation. At 512 pages, other readers might think the story too long. Yet I found the themes so compelling these problems did not turn me off. Like any good novel, this one is layered with meaning. In The Divine Comedy (by Dante Alighieri), Beatrice becomes the protagonist’s guide to Paradise. The saint for whom Peter is named may have founded the Roman Catholic Church, but he also denied knowing Jesus on three occasions (just as Peter minimizes his relationship with Bea). And Faber claims all his characters’ surnames are based on those of the writers, pencillers and inkers for Marvel Comics during the 1960s and 1970s (a gesture that should please many sci-fi and fantasy geeks).
Though it’s unfair to view a novelist’s work through the lens of his life, in this case we must make an exception. While Faber worked on the book, his wife was diagnosed with and treated for a rare form of cancer. Ultimately she died. That helps explain the novel’s preoccupation with the preciousness of life. All in all, this reader feels the author’s loss is our gain. I highly recommend the book.
What is your favorite work of Science Fiction? Why?