Pastor Peter Leigh has been selected to visit Oasis, a planet trillions of miles from Earth that is home to an alien species that hungers for the word of God and especially the love of Jesus. This is a fantastic opportunity for Peter, to become a missionary on a new frontier. But the cost is high. USIC, the mysterious company that has bought Cape Canaveral and finances space exploration to Oasis, has a stringent selection policy and there is a place for just Peter, not for his beloved wife Bea. Peter must cope with life on a new, very different world, with little more than his own faith to sustain him, learning to relate to his strange unearthly flock, while separated from his wife and soulmate. Left on Earth, Bea has more than enough trials to test her own faith. Earth is in decline, catastrophes increase. Bea’s letters grow more and more desolate. The separation between husband and wife becomes much more than physical as both Peter and Bea learn about the true nature of faith, communication, love and need.
The Book of Strange New Things may well be the novel that I’ve thought about most this year before I actually got round to reading it. Friends whose opinions I value didn’t like it at all while there were others who adored it. A marmite book by the sound of things. I had some concerns going in – I have a low tolerance for anything that feels ‘preachy’ or religious and I don’t get on too well with books about marriage break-ups. But there was a stronger voice in my head saying I must read it – the cover is stunning, my favourite of the year, tactile and gorgeous, and it’s about life on a colony on an alien world while the Earth that’s been left behind approaches its apocalypse. As far as I was concerned, this is irresistible. What I actually got from The Book of Strange New Things is much more than that. This book made me dream of it.
Oasis is a breathtaking planet, not necessarily because it’s beautiful (although I think it is) but because of the way that Michel Faber describes it. Rarely has an author transported me to another world that is as fully realised as this one or populated by an alien species as sympathetic as this one. The descriptions of the rain, the mud, the insects, the sun and light and darkness, the Jesus Loving aliens, their homes and church – it is all created with such care and wonder. Earth is, as Peter reflects, more stunning with so much more to marvel at but Oasis is gorgeously different. It is alien and the wonder of that is evoked superbly through the beauty of Michel Faber’s prose.
After the opening powerful scene in which Peter and Bea part, the remainder of the novel largely moves between two worlds – Peter’s time as Pastor in the alien town, C2 or Freakland as the other colonists unkindly think of it, and his days in the human habitat surrounded by such a mix of souls. In C2 Peter experiences the everyday life of the aliens, their desire for medicines which they swap with the humans for food, their slow-motion labour, their relationship to others, their apparent androgyny and, as far as one sector of their community goes at least, their deep love and trust in Jesus. These are a ‘people’ who, after their first pastor disappeared, refused to barter food with humans until a new one is fetched from Earth for them, and that is despite their strong desire for medicines. Peter is transformed during these long days and nights in the town. He tries to adapt the word of God to make it easier for these beings who cannot pronounce many of the letters in the Bible. Peter is inspired and driven. In turn, he is loved.
The world of the human colony on Oasis is a different place entirely. Peter is drawn especially to Grainger, the colony’s pharmacist, but she is damaged and so, Peter learns, are many of these people who have chosen to live their lives trillions of miles from home and family.
Scattered throughout is an exchange of ‘letters’ between Bea and Peter. Having grown close by experiencing everything together, they must now build another kind of relationship defined by distance and it is difficult for them both. The glimpses we see of Earth’s environmental and social collapse thanks to Bea’s letters are absolutely fascinating, the trivial mixing with the monumental, and we can feel the push and pull of this on Peter.
This is not a straightforward narrative. We experience almost everything through Peter and his isn’t a skin that is always pleasant to inhabit. He describes everyone first by the colour of their skin, he makes easy judgements, he is obsessed with bodily functions and he has a battle to overcome his other needs. But as we learn more about his past and as he changes through contact with the aliens, it becomes easier for him and us to overcome his prejudices. Bea, by contrast, was for me an enormously sympathetic character. I felt for her so strongly. I also loved the aliens – they are so different from us but Michel Faber made me care for them very deeply.
The religious debate, the discussions about family, memories and home, are powerfully done. I didn’t expect to be moved by it but I was. Here we have people laid bare while the disasters that befall Earth are Biblical indeed. The aliens’ relationship with their faith and beliefs is developed, and later explained, extremely well and in a most memorable manner.
There is plenty here that doesn’t make sense. This is a very near-future world so how did humanity reach Oasis (and long enough ago to have built such a colony)? How do the aliens speak such good English? Why is there no time lag in communications between Peter and Bea? And I could list more. But this is science fiction without the science, a book about religion that isn’t itself religious. This is a book about one man’s experience, warts and all. I may have worried that I wouldn’t like this novel but I loved it from the very first chapter. Compelling, hypnotic, really rather extraordinary and, for me, unputdownable. The Book of Strange New Things is a highlight of the year for me and will stay with me for a long time.
In the acknowledgements, Faber mentions that all of the surnames in the book are based on those of the people who created the Marvel Comics that inspired him so deeply during the 1960s and 70s. Love that!