In Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things (2014), a minister named Peter is sent to a distant planet, Oasis, as a missionary to humanoid aliens – the Oasans. The drama on the planet is muted – a proportion of the Oasans have become committed “Jesus Lovers” and require only pastoring and preaching; Peter’s job is not the stuff of nineteenth-century missionary adventure books in which the bearer of God’s word must endure cannibals. Life for the humans on Oasis is a little boring but not particularly dangerous or terrible. Yet Peter can communicate with his wife, Bea, through a kind of email system and from her he learns of the growing tide of disasters besetting his home planet. As the Earth fall apart, he feels disconnected from it and from his wife.
Strange New Things is a work of science fiction marketed to literary fiction readers. As a novel of ideas (as science fiction is) it is less than startling – a little familiar – while also plausible and interesting. Yet it has a subtlety and obliqueness that set it apart from much science fiction. When Peter learns the “truth” about the mission and about the company he works for, it’s not the climax of the novel, only part of a deeper existential crisis.
Strange New Things is so sincere in its depiction of a quite orthodox Christianity that it also bears some resemblance to evangelical fiction, that range of modified, Christianised genres. It’s a remarkably sympathetic portrayal of faith from an atheist writer, albeit one who was brought up a Baptist in Melbourne. An interview with Nick Thorpe for The Church Times gives some interesting insight into Faber’s complex relationship with Christianity.
It’s also an epistolary novel, the exchanges between Peter and Bea making up a good proportion of the book. They are tender and affecting in their depiction of love, but unfortunately they fell a little flat for me. I was sick of hearing about the adventures of Joshua the cat back on Earth, although he was to have, it turns out, a significant dramatic function.
I’ve only read Faber’s novella The Hundred and Ninety-Nine Steps (2001) before, which felt a similar work, but he is actually noted for the dissimilarity between his books. In this one, his tenderness and sincerity are almost shocking as well as beautiful. It is a novel which haunts for reasons I can’t articulate well, but not unrelated to its quietness and the ordinariness of its prose. My memory of it will also be tied up to my knowledge of the biographical circumstances of its writing – Faber’s wife was diagnosed with cancer soon after he began and died just before he finished. I feel it could well be a novel I will only appreciate fully in the months and years to come as I think back over it.