The Book of Strange New Things
By Michel Faber
The Book of Strange New Things, is itself quite strange. It's one of those genre books that have managed to convince the mainstream that it's more mainstream literature. I must admit that it's also not a bad example and will certainly not do the reputation of science fiction any harm.
It is however decidedly odd.
The premise is that humanity has finally spread to the Stars and along the way they've found not only a habitable planet but one that already has an indigenous life form. There is no "prime directive" here and while the creatures on the planet Oasis are clearly intelligent and communicative (to a degree) they don't visibly use technology at all. They have however become fond of religion, in particular the King James Bible which they refer to as The Book of Strange New Things.
Peter, a Pastor, is called to the planet by the private space company USIC in order to teach the Oasan's more about God and Jesus and such things — following the disappearance of the last Priest to visit the planet. He quickly bonds with the natives and finds them both friendly and eager to learn. Against this backdrop we've got the love of Peter for his Wife Bea and the strain on the relationship this adventure brings about forms the core of the novel.
The science fiction elements are underplayed a great deal, so much so that the causal non-genre reader shouldn't feel out of their comfort zone. One of the only real elements that does play a part (except for the fact that we are on a different planet) is the depiction of Oasis and the Oasan's themselves. Here the author manages to firmly grasp that elusive feeling of alien-ness, describing the non-human race with an air of strangeness and enigma. You really do feel like your on another planet, surrounded by alien beings.
Back on Earth it's clear that humanity hasn't sorted out it's own mess before interfering with the lives of others and Bea's messages show a gradual, worrying deterioration of Earth as the story progresses. War tears the fabric of civility apart and law and order break down resulting in a chaotic society.
Over on Oasis Peter is wrapped in this crazy bubble, revered as a religious icon by the Oasans he quickly loses his grip with what little reality he seemed to possess. On Earth Bea has so much reality rammed down her throat she struggles to cope. Two people in entirely different situations and of course inevitably they start to drift apart from each others lives.
I'm not overly fond of preachy books and don't like how some religions like to force their message onto others. Faber approaches this in an interesting way though, in part it's a message about how western explorers have always tried to stamp their own views onto the indigenous population. While I'd like to believe we are a bit better than that, that we are a more tolerant bunch, the truth is we have a long way to go yet. We are still little more than cavemen with more advanced versions of pointy sticks, sticking the points wherever we like.
What I didn't like about this book was Peter, to be blunt he's a bit of an arse-hole. He's shallow, obsessive, judgemental and occasionally casually racist. I know it must be completely overwhelming to be part of a first-encounter situation, to actually meet creatures not of our planet but he gets so wrapped up, so self contained that he practically ignores his wifes pleas and doesn't seem to understand the desperate situation she faces. He becomes entirely self-centred and interested only in explaining to her how wonderful his own life is. As time goes on his life with the Oasan's parallels the life of an addict and I guess that's another of the messages the book is playing out.
The fact that Faber manages to express all of this on the page is a rare talent. His debates on the subject of religion, family and the study of memory and what we call home are intelligent, thoughtful and powerful.
The Book of Strange New Things manages to do the almost impossible - make you like the book while dislike the protagonist and his stupid, self-centred choices. It's warm in some places, alarming in others. Then there is the undertone of bittersweet sadness that comes from the fact that the authors wife was dying of cancer as he wrote this.
A thoughtful, powerful, clever, occasionally annoying and decidedly strange book.
Written on 14th December 2015 by Ant .