Back in 2017, I reviewed an incredible book titled Under the Skin by Dutch-born author Michel Faber. As you can see from that particular post, I fell completely in love with this genre-bending horror novel that wasn’t really horror at all. You may also have noticed, following all my praising of the work, that I planned on picking up another novel by Faber by the end of that year. Well, five years, a pandemic, and numerous catastrophes later, and I’ve finally returned to him. One could draw the conclusion that I’m quite the fickle book lover, one that will probably never achieve title of completist on one author. The world of books is too vast, and yes, I freely confess to Mr. Faber my sins of falling in love with many other authors. The Book of Strange New Things, much like my prior reading experience, appeared as one thing but ended up becoming something completely different. It’s a science fiction novel that turns out to not be a science fiction novel at all. Instead, this novel is an examination on the positive aspects of faith, but also the dangers of blind devotion.
I was raised as a Christian. As a child, some of my earliest memories are of my mother reading to me at bedtime from my illustrated children’s edition of The Bible. While we were never a church-going family, my mom worked extremely hard at instilling the virtues of Christianity into my developing brain. Like for many others, my personal spiritual journey has had its share of highs and lows. Currently, I’m at a crossroads regarding where I stand on my Christian faith. What does this have to do with my return to Michel Faber? Let’s talk about the novel for a moment.
Despite its journey into the new frontier of an alien planet, The Book of Strange New Things is a quiet, meditative novel that weaves familiar science fiction tropes around terrestrial reflections on faith and devotion. The story opens with Peter Leigh’s last night on Earth. A former drug addict, Peter has now turned his life over as a man of God, dedicated to preaching the teachings of The Bible from his small church in England. Peter is married to Beatrice, a nurse who helped him turn his life around for the better. The opening of the novel not only gives us insight into their faith but also into them as a couple. Their relationship is about to change, however, as Peter has been selected from thousands of applicants to serve as “Minister (Christian) to the Indigenous Population” of a planet named Oasis. A few years before the events of this novel, humans have started a colonization project on this world and have formed a sort of working relationship with the natives involving exchanging food and medical supplies. In order to keep this amicable arrangement going, the Oasans, as they’re known to the humans, have requested a minister to teach them from what they call “The Book of Strange New Things.” While Peter is excited to be able to spread Christ’s teachings on another planet, this will mean an extended amount of time away from his wife. However, Peter firmly believes that their relationship can handle the distance and time, providing they stay strong in their beliefs.
Faber keeps the technical aspects of science fiction fairly simple. In fact, everything from the spaceship, inanimate suspension, even to the native inhabitants of the planet themselves, are essentially a “greatest hits” collection of ideas that have appeared in numerous books and media of the past. The world-building of this planet and the indigenous population are successful because so much is left to imagination and conjecture. NASA is now obsolete, and the organization responsible for this mission is USIC–a shadowy multinational corporation whose intentions may not be fully the most noble. However, Peter has no interest in the political underpinnings of USIC, firm in his belief that “God will guide me.”
Once the good pastor arrives to this new world, Faber manages to make the planet appear believable through any lack of real detail. Oasis mostly appears lifeless, marked by searing temperatures, brutal humidity, and the occasional rainstorm. The base that has been setup quite a distance from the inhabitants’ village is mysterious within itself. The personnel treat Peter with respect but have no desire to have any type of understanding of the Oasans. Peter is allowed to exchange e-mails with his wife through a heavily monitored system. As Bea describes Earth, as well as her personal life, falling into an apocalypse, he responds sporadically with replies that just tell Bea to continue to put trust in God. Along with being a poignant demonstration of why long-distance relationships don’t work, their correspondence supports the dark side of Peter’s absolute and unwavering beliefs. No matter what calamities are occurring back home (trust me, it’s bad), Peter is too focused on getting to be the vessel that teaches these alien creatures about the wonders of Christianity.
“Not for the first time, Peter thought about how much of our lives we spend sequestered inside small patches of electric brightness, blind to everything beyond the reach of those fragile bulbs.”
Understand that this is not a novel about first contact, as Peter’s colleagues have been on Oasis for years, exchanging food and medicine. Peter isn’t even the first minister to these people, as his predecessor vanished under mysterious circumstances. Despite so many questions, Peter turns a blind eye as he throws himself into the role as a savior to the Oasans. The genius of this novel is the way Faber takes all of these different plotlines: religion, faith, love, colonization, and never truly expresses which is right. As I was 400 pages into this 500-page novel, I truly had no idea where this story was heading. Despite all of these questions, though, the novel remains focused on Peter’s sweet interaction with the beings of Oasis. They’re a delicate, private race, mostly humanoid, except for their faces, which are described as resembling human fetuses. These beings are kept mysterious, as we learn nothing about their past history and gain only fleeting glimpses into their culture. In fact, the one certainty about this race is that they hold absolute and complete belief in the words of “The Book of Strange New Things.” What more could a minister want than to be embraced by such a devoted community?
As I was reading this book, I couldn’t help but compare their complete and utter devotion to children who follow without question. While we don’t learn a lot about their history, Faber does well in developing an unearthly culture with a language that resembles an Eastern language. As they’ve developed some rudimentary English, their physiology does not allow the pronunciations of certain consonants. Peter takes it upon himself to develop his own translation of certain books of The Bible to help accommodate the Oasans.
While some science fiction keeps us on guard (maybe the aliens are evil or they eat humans), Faber has something more philosophical and mournful in mind. Taking his time to develop the bizarre setting and all the elements of this space opera, at its foundation is a novel about spiritual intimacy. Peter is someone that truly believes, which at times can seem far more alien than aliens with a fetus as a face. Often, I was torn, as sometimes I recognized him for the truly good person he is trying to be, but also frustrated at how self-centered he could be in his faith. The hardest passages to read are from his wife Bea, as she is faced with one struggle after another and just wants her husband to return home. Faber keeps the entire novel on Peter’s point-of-view, so we only see his wife’s experiences through his reading her emails. Her descriptions of the tragedies that occur, both personal and worldwide, are heartbreaking and traumatic. Faber brings this novel to a resolution, but it’s one that leaves you wondering what the future holds for this couple.
As I write these words, I am facing a personal tragedy of my own. A great loss is approaching, and I already find myself grieving. While I must reconcile my questions on faith and rediscover my own spirituality, I find it interesting that certain books enter my life at a times when they are needed. Faber wrote this novel in the middle of his own personal struggles with grief and loss, and the result is a complex treatment into the meanings of religion and faith. If Michel Faber ever happens to stumble onto this little review of mine, then I hope he will accept my gratitude. What I thought would be a fascinating work of science fiction became an experience that will not be forgotten. Peace and love my friends.