In a world where Christ believers are routinely castigated by skilled polemicists, respected scientists and internet trolls alike it is refreshing to happen upon a serious novel that treats Christian concerns with respect, intellect and a certain level of affection. Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things is that sort of work. At the very least, the promise in the premise is pregnant with possibilities.
The narrative centres on an appeal by the inhabitants of a planet called Oasis for instruction in the Christian religion – this hardly resembles the biblical appearance of the Macedonian man in Paul’s dream beseeching the apostle to “Come over and help us.” In this case the appeal is channeled through a mysterious corporate entity simply labelled USIC.
At the beginning of the book Pastor Peter Leigh hurries to Heathrow Airport to catch a connecting flight to a space port in the U.S. where he’ll be rendered unconscious and hurled across the vast reaches of space toward Oasis, in an interstellar craft powered by a vaguely described mechanism called the Jump.
Peter has been rigorously vetted by USIC and selected from among thousands of clergy who’ve indicated their availability for such a call. Yet his spouse, Beatrice, has been weighed in the balance by USIC and found wanting. Progress to the airport and beyond is delayed somewhat by an acutely amorous Beatrice, who is achingly aware that she won’t be coming along for the ride.
What a hormonally charged episode that transpires in the back of their parked car seems designed to indicate is that the characters Peter and Beatrice are indeed flesh and blood adults and that their physical (and psychological) separation will matter a great deal to both of them as the plot unfolds.
Faber seems especially adept at getting inside the minds of two individuals who have dedicated their lives to a Higher Power. The sense of sacrifice and mission of both Peter and his earthbound spouse is carefully depicted. Although a linchpin of the narrative is Sci-Fi, this book is anything but a traditional space opera.
Once he’s arrived on the planet Peter is awakened and processed through the USIC compound on Oasis. That place resembles an exceptionally sterile suburban corporate headquarters peopled for the most part by self-satisfied engineers and corporate hacks.
Soon enough the emotional centre of the book shifts to Peter’s encounters with the Oasans themselves and a USIC operative, Grainger, a pharmacist who is assigned the task of chauffeuring Peter to “Freaktown” (formally called C-2), where the Oasans dwell.
The planet’s inhabitants are surprising in emotional makeup, physical appearance and spiritual growth. Although amazingly receptive to the Christian message, their culture remains enigmatic to Peter. They seem to dwell mostly in the present with scant regard for the past, individual prestige or many of the emotions that constitute human neuroses and obsessions. One might speculate that they’ve based their civilization on the teachings of New Age gurus such as Eckhart Tolle. Yet many of them long to learn more of the teachings found in “the book of strange new things”– in particular the King James version of the Bible first introduced to them by a Baptist preacher named Reverend Marty Kurtzberg.
Although their mastery of English is owing to a linguist assigned to them by USIC a typical mission field cultural divide persists. Both the linguist and Rev. Kurtzberg are now mysteriously absent from the scene.
The peace on Oasis and the apparent ease with which Pastor Peter brings the Gospel message to the Oasans contrast sharply with the disturbing reports that begin to arrive from Peter’s wife Beatrice. These portray an earth in danger of stumbling into alarming chaos and possible Apocalypse. As Peter’s affection for his strange new flock continues to grow the couple’s relationship experiences profound alienation – no pun intended.
Their exchanges travel between Oasis and Earth via a communications technology called the Shoot and play a crucial role throughout the book. They let us in on what the novel’s main characters are thinking, believing and feeling and quite possibly the author’s opinions. These seem much more important to him than any technological delineation. In fact, a few minor scientific quibbles might arise, such as how uniform the planet Oasis and its climate seem to be from one pole to the next.
Ultimately this 584-page novel is more a study in the psychology, anthropology and the purpose of religious belief than a straight ahead Sci-Fi yarn. Neither is it a masterly exercise in Christian apologetics resembling C.S. Lewis’s space trilogy. Nonetheless, this skillfully crafted story has the power to move, disturb and provoke a fair amount of self-examination in anyone who takes their beliefs (whatever they may be) seriously.