The Book of Strange New Things, Michel Faber, Hogarth, 2014, 495 pp
Michel Faber's new novel, due to be released on October 28, is itself a book of strange new things. I remember devouring his previous novel, The Crimson Petal and the White. It was historical fiction about a prostitute, a bestseller, mildly trashy but with good writing and a fabulous heroine. The Book of Strange New Things is not any of that.
Peter is a recovering alcoholic and drug user who became a minister after he met and married Beatrice, who nursed him through his final overdose. He is deeply committed to his faith in the way that people are when they give up past bad habits and need something new to hang on to.
Bea is the practical member of the couple, but deeply devoted to keeping Peter happy and sober. When he gets recruited by USIC, a multinational corporation, to go to a planet light years away and serve as Chaplain to its indigenous creatures, Bea is not chosen to go with him. Quite soon, I figured out that they chose Peter because of his wide-eyed gullibility.
So he goes to the planet Oasis, pretty much goes native in short order, and feels more at home with the nonhuman Oasans than with the earthlings. The Book of Strange New Things is the Oasans' name for the Bible.
Faber does an excellent job of creating Peter's character, his obsession with the Oasans and getting the gospel to them, and his obliviousness to other humans. Every other person on Oasis has something odd about them, some troubled past, but none are looking for religion.
By page 175, I could tell that something was very wrong on Oasis and settled in to the remaining 300 plus pages to find out what that something was. The trouble for me was that it turned out not to be a sci fi thriller/first contact story but rather Peter's true redemption story.
He is able to communicate with Bea by a sort of interplanetary text messaging device. Like many men who travel for work, my husband included, he is not good at long distance communication. Add to this his extreme self-absorption and marital discord develops.
Religion in science fiction or speculative fiction is somewhat rare and is sometimes done extremely well, as in Mary Doria Russel's The Sparrow. You would think it would be used more often. Michel Faber handles the religion aspect well, also the tension in Peter and Bea's marriage, and the beginnings on Earth of an apocalyptic stew of climate change, end of oil, and economic breakdown. He also creates a convincing scenario of USIC, obviously exploiting a new planet for scientific and commercial gain.
In the end though, the novel is just a story about a loser who finally grows up and begins to get a grip. The creepy menace on Oasis, the true reason for the native Oasans' desire for Christianity, and the fate of both planets all just peter out (no pun intended) and it is all about Peter, as it has been for almost 500 pages.
(The Book of Strange New Things is available in various formats for pre-order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)