The Book of Strange New Things

The Book of Strange New Things

It begins with Peter, a devoted man of faith, as he is called to the mission of a lifetime, one that takes him galaxies away from his wife, Bea. Peter becomes immersed in the mysteries of an astonishing new environment, overseen by an enigmatic corporation known only as USIC. His work introduces him to a seemingly friendly native population struggling with a dangerous illn...

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Title:The Book of Strange New Things
Author:Michel Faber
Rating:
ISBN:055341884X
Edition Language:English
Format Type:Hardcover
Number of Pages:500 pages

The Book of Strange New Things Reviews

  • Paul Bryant
    Jun 20, 2014

    I made a note at the 200 page mark :

    However by the end of the 584th page new, happier thoughts had formed :

    I made a note at the 200 page mark :

    However by the end of the 584th page new, happier thoughts had formed :

    And yes, my faith was justified, all my list of major complaints about the plot were met and answered and my doubts melted away.

    appears for the first 200 pages to be like an SF story written by an earnest 19 year old in 1959 – because the premise casually brushes aside a thousand problems.

    We can grant the first major plot points here – that a few decades into the future someone has invented a way of travelling to other solar systems, that a habitable planet has been found, with breathable air, and that a faceless American corporation with undisclosed motives is exploiting this new world, and that the world is already inhabited by the first alien race humans have come across. So far so standard SF.

    But then the corporation selects a happy-clappy Christian minister to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ to the aliens. And the novel is his story. And the title is what the aliens call the Bible. So these problems present themselves:

    - How come the aliens don’t already have a religion

    - How come the UN or the American government or about a thousand major scientific organisations aren’t freaking out saying you can’t just send a Christian missionary to aliens & clamouring to be allowed to make anthropologically sensitive approaches to the aliens because the approach in this book by our priest is exactly the same as Victorians used in darkest Africa in the 1850s and we surely have learned a few things, no? But it seems all Earth organisations have deemed the first contact with aliens to be of minor importance, to be left to amateurs

    - How come our irritating priest is given no briefings about the race, its situation, its economy, language, whether there are any diseases to catch, dangerous life forms, nothing. He hasn’t even seen a photo of them. It’s just like – the aliens are over there, we’ll drop you off & then you’re kind of on your own. You’ll be fine!

    As I say, an earnest young SF wannabe writer would have written just such a story and ignored just such issues in 1959. But Michel hasn’t ignored them at all. Everything has an answer, it just takes a while to get there. The story goes at approximately 23 miles an hour. And it’s hypnotic. Once you start, when you’re not reading

    you’re all, aw, gee, why do we have to work, eat, sleep and socialise again? Can’t I skip all that for a few days?

    The aliens are pretty good and pretty alien too. They do have legs and arms and a torso and a head, but their heads look like two foetuses stuck together, they have no discernible eyes, they have an orifice from which they try to speak in English but they have great trouble with consonants like t, s, sh, ch, th, so their version of the Lord’s Prayer sounds like

    The aliens are by far the most sympathetic characters in this tale of alienation where misunderstandings and communication breakdowns are always just a few inches below the surface. Do the aliens have the first idea of what Christianity means ? (Well, are Christians agreed on what Christ meant?) And Peter, did you and Bea ever have that miraculous mutual understanding you thought you did, given how quickly things unravel when there’s a few hundred light years between you?

    A satisfyingly uneasy read about love in various forms, faith in various forms, what makes life worth living, cats, rain and the coming demise of supermarkets which restored my faith in the big long novel.

    Michel, I

    you!

  • Jessica Woodbury
    Jul 07, 2014

    This book is mesmerizing. I couldn't stop reading it. And when it was over I felt like I'd just finished something amazing, but I also felt like I wasn't sure if I understood what I experienced. (I even re-read it a couple months later and enjoyed it even more.)

    I am deeply impressed by Faber's book and the fact that it centers around a man of faith. As someone who has lived with and without religion in my life, I do find it odd that it does not play a greater role in art and literature. Faber le

    This book is mesmerizing. I couldn't stop reading it. And when it was over I felt like I'd just finished something amazing, but I also felt like I wasn't sure if I understood what I experienced. (I even re-read it a couple months later and enjoyed it even more.)

    I am deeply impressed by Faber's book and the fact that it centers around a man of faith. As someone who has lived with and without religion in my life, I do find it odd that it does not play a greater role in art and literature. Faber lets his protagonist have strengths and flaws, more than that, Peter has a consistent philosophy of religion and morality. The flaws are perhaps more obvious to the reader than to Peter himself (especially when it comes to his relationship with his wife) but that's part of what makes the book interesting. It's also a book with a great deal about religion that is unlikely to offend or annoy people who are religious or people who are not. It is Peter's character that is this way, not any statement the author is making pro or con.

    This is also a great example of how good literary fiction can combine a variety of genres. Yes, there is a good element of science-fiction here. Peter is to be the pastor to an alien community on another planet some time in the not-too-distant future. The alien race are mysterious and fascinating, and their full nature is never completely explained. Of course not. That would be too pat for a book that concerns itself with deeper questions.

    Even though there are science-fiction elements here, like the best sci-fi it is not about space travel or aliens. It is about morality, relationships, innocence, and so much more.

    It's very possible that you'll finish this book feeling the same mix of confusion and wonder that I did, which had me thinking initially this would be a 4-star review. But it's not a book I'll forget any time soon and the more I thought about how the book impressed me, the more I realized it was something truly unique and worthy of a full 5 stars.

  • Jason McKinney
    Jul 12, 2014

    Ugh...I hated this. I absolutely loved Under the Skin, but this was a huge disappointment. It was endlessly tedious, the protagonist was not very likable and the plot itself just never really came together. It's amazing because the reviews on GR have been largely glowing, but this was just a huge bust. The Book of Strange New Things? More like The (Endless) Book of Tedious Plot and Lame Characters.

  • Ron Charles
    Nov 07, 2014

    At the end of the Gospel of Mark, Jesus tells his disciples, “Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature.”

    For a while now, evangelicals have had to restrict their preaching to creatures on this planet, but someday, who knows? Will the heathens of Andromeda embrace the good news about a man who was nailed to a cross a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away?

    I can remember debating that essential question late at night as an undergrad at my little Christian college in Illino

    At the end of the Gospel of Mark, Jesus tells his disciples, “Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature.”

    For a while now, evangelicals have had to restrict their preaching to creatures on this planet, but someday, who knows? Will the heathens of Andromeda embrace the good news about a man who was nailed to a cross a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away?

    I can remember debating that essential question late at night as an undergrad at my little Christian college in Illinois. (We were a wild bunch!) The issue of extraterrestrial proselytizing has attracted some attention from notable science fiction writers, too. Captain Kirk was more interested in spreading his seed than the Gospel, but Trekkies will remember Episode 54, when the intrepid crew of the Starship Enterprise stumbled upon Son worshipers on a distant planet. And far more powerfully, Mary Doria Russell wrote her first novel, “The Sparrow,” about a Jesuit priest who travels four light years away for the glory of God.

    The latest story to boldly go into this final frontier of theological speculation comes from Michel Faber, a Dutch-born writer who lives in Scotland. Best known for “The Crimson Petal and the White” (2002), which took place in the Victorian era, Faber now launches us into the future, when interplanetary travel is almost routine.

    For all its galactic wonders, “The Book of Strange New Things” is a subtle, meditative novel that winds familiar space-alien tropes around terrestrial reflections on faith and devotion. The story opens with Peter Leigh’s last night on Earth. He has already completed the difficult steps from drug addict to man of God. Now, he’s ready for one giant leap. The pastor of a small church in England, he has been chosen from thousands of applicants “to pursue the most important missionary calling since the Apostles had ventured forth to conquer Rome.” His job — classified as “urgent” — is to serve as “Minister (Christian) to Indigenous Population” of a planet called Oasis.

    Faber seems largely uninterested in the technical apparatus of science fiction. The spaceship, the physics of “the Jump,” the physiology of inanimate suspension, along with the scientific breakthroughs that would be necessary to support such a voyage — he constructs all these details from an old refrigerator box with some tempera paint, like the special effects in an early episode of “Dr. Who.” But that spottiness gradually comes to reflect Peter’s own lack of attention to the fallen world. His sponsor is USIC, a shadowy multinational corporation about which Peter shows little interest. “I don’t really follow politics,” he confesses. “I don’t have access to social media.” None of those temporal distractions are relevant to his eternal vocation. “God will guide me,” he tells his nervous wife before shooting into the heavens.

    Once the good pastor arrives in the new world, the novel sinks into its setting in fascinating ways, most cleverly by resisting our expectations of this impossibly alien place. Oasis appears almost without form, and void. It’s “a dark, moist tundra,” marked by searing temperatures and ferocious, magical rainstorms. The earthlings’ headquarters, too, are suspiciously bland. “There was something weird about the USIC personnel,” Peter thinks, but they treat him with cheery deference and give him a sparse room from which he can exchange e-mail (but no photos) with his wife. As she describes Earth falling into environmental and political ruin, he responds sporadically with perfunctory expressions of concern. More than a poignant demonstration of why long-distance relationships never work, their correspondence suggests the dark side of Peter’s ministry: No matter what calamities his wife outlines, the crisis that interests him is always the one in which he gets to play the savior.

    Strikingly, “The Book of Strange New Things” isn’t a story of first contact. Peter’s new colleagues have been trading drugs and food with the aliens for years. Indeed, he’s the replacement for an earlier minister who went native and vanished. Yet as Peter heads off wearing his Pauline sandals and robe, he knows nothing about the creatures he’s meant to serve. “This world’s indigenous inhabitants, thriving or otherwise, were scarcely mentioned in USIC’s literature,” Faber writes, “except for fastidious assurances that nothing was planned or implemented without their full and informed consent.”

    Of course, we read that bland corporate assurance with the dismal history of exploration and Christian mission work crying in our minds: Columbus brought salvation and smallpox; the first Thanksgiving feast began with grace but eventually gave way to war and a trail of tears. Despite raising these concerns about exploitation, 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 look like “a pile of entrails.” They don’t like to be touched. No problem.

    Faber’s most remarkable creation is not just the aliens’ physiology but their whole unearthly culture, with aspirations, concerns and customs that we can’t possibly fathom. Their murmuring voices sound like “wet bracken being crushed underfoot.” Their language, which has no consonants, is transcribed throughout the book in a kind of Cyrillic script.

    Expecting skepticism and doubt, or at least “monolithic barriers of foreignness,” Peter finds instead scores of faithful Oasans eagerly waiting for him. These gentle souls can’t get enough stories about “the technique of Jesus.” They insist Peter read more from the Bible, which they call “the book of strange new things.” (The gold-edged pages of this novel are a clever sanctifying touch by the publisher.)

    What could be more seductive for a minister than to be embraced by a community of such loving congregants? The Oasans’ thirst for the Word exceeds anything Peter has experienced — perhaps it even exceeds his own enthusiasm. “Peter had a good feeling about his ministry here,” Faber writes. “God was taking a special interest in the way things were panning out.”

    Classic sci-fi puts us on guard in pleasant situations like this — “Soylent Green is people!” — but Faber has something more subtle and mournful in mind. It takes a while to realize that, despite its bizarre setting and all the elements of an interplanetary opera, this is a novel of profound spiritual intimacy. Peter knows the Bible well, and if you do, too, you’ll see that he experiences everything through the fabric of its metaphors and parables. He prays like someone who actually believes, which in literary fiction is far more exotic than a space alien with a hamburger face. But there’s something naive and self-centered about his devotion. The purity of the Oasans’ belief in the Gospel that he preaches will test his faith in a way he never expected.

    As someone who harbors a fondness for science fiction and thirsts for more complex treatment of religion in contemporary novels, I relished every chance to cloister myself away with “The Book of Strange New Things.” If it feels more contemplative than propulsive, if Faber repeatedly thwarts his own dramatic premises, he also offers exactly what I crave: a state of mingled familiarity and alienness that leaves us with questions we can’t answer — or forget.

  • Rick Riordan
    Nov 25, 2014

    An adult sci fi novel with an intriguing premise: Mankind has reached its first extraterrestrial world, Oasis, and the giant corporation USIC is working hard to build a colony there while economic and climatic conditions on earth continue to deteriorate. There's one hitch to their plans: the natives of Oasis want a preacher. They've had a limited introduction to the Christian faith, but after their first human pastor mysteriously goes missing, they refuse to provide food to the human settlers un

    An adult sci fi novel with an intriguing premise: Mankind has reached its first extraterrestrial world, Oasis, and the giant corporation USIC is working hard to build a colony there while economic and climatic conditions on earth continue to deteriorate. There's one hitch to their plans: the natives of Oasis want a preacher. They've had a limited introduction to the Christian faith, but after their first human pastor mysteriously goes missing, they refuse to provide food to the human settlers until a new preacher arrives to replace him. Peter Leigh steps up to take the job, leaving behind his wife Bea in England to become an interstellar missionary. When Peter gets to Oasis, we know something is not right. Why have two colonists disappeared? Why are the natives so intent on learning about the Christian gospel? And why is USIC censoring news and correspondence between Earth and Oasis? As Peter and Bea write back and forth to one another, sharing what is happening on the two planets, the story becomes both painful and compelling. And when you find out the answers to some of the novel's central mysteries . . . Well, I won't give anything away, but the answers pack a punch.

  • Sam Quixote
    Dec 11, 2014

    Sometime in the future, humanity has discovered they are not alone in the universe: on a distant planet named Oasis dwells a race of supremely ugly aliens (their faces are described as two foetuses fused together!) - and they LOVE Jeebus. So much so that they’re withholding food from the handful of human colonists on their planet until they get a replacement missionary.

    Enter Peter Leigh, a former homeless junkie thief turned born-again Christian minister selected by the USIC Corporation to be s

    Sometime in the future, humanity has discovered they are not alone in the universe: on a distant planet named Oasis dwells a race of supremely ugly aliens (their faces are described as two foetuses fused together!) - and they LOVE Jeebus. So much so that they’re withholding food from the handful of human colonists on their planet until they get a replacement missionary.

    Enter Peter Leigh, a former homeless junkie thief turned born-again Christian minister selected by the USIC Corporation to be sent to Oasis and preach from the Bible, which the Oasans refer to as The Book of Strange New Things. But why are the Oasans so enamoured with Christianity? And what happened to their last minister…?

    That’s the setup for Michel Faber’s latest doorstopper-sized novel, and it’s actually quite enticing and original-seeming at first. Except that summary is misleading because this book is actually about how long distance relationships don’t work. I know – pick your jaw up off the floor because that’s revelatory information, right? But that is essentially the whole book which wouldn’t be so bad if I cared a bit about either Peter or his wife Bea but I didn’t.

    Peter heads to Oasis while Bea remains on Earth. Things go well for Peter – the Oasans are receptive and he enjoys his time on the planet; things for badly for Bea as the world around her falls apart – China invades the Middle East and ends up controlling their oil supply, global supermarket chains go bankrupt, freak weather decimates countries, wars erupt, governments topple, it’s the complete and total collapse of Western civilisation.

    Make no mistake though: The Book of Strange New Things is an utterly tedious read. Beyond the novelty of meeting the Oasans, there’s nothing much to them. They’re around five feet tall, they’re ugly, they’re a very simple, agrarian-based culture, and many of them believe the word of God completely. Little is added to this knowledge as the novel progresses.

    The only “conflict” Peter encounters is trying to make the Bible stories work for his new flock as they have trouble pronouncing “s” and “t” in their tongue as well as understanding some of the imagery (they don’t have sheep or fish so wouldn’t know what stories involving them would mean), so he rewrites them to make it easier for them to speak and grasp. He doesn’t have to try to convert them as a large number are already devout Christians and he doesn’t encounter the ones who aren’t. Easier and easier.

    He gets on with his fellow humans on the USIC base for the most part. They’re a gentle but soulless bunch consumed with work – they are the best in the professions: engineering, geology, biology, medicine, etc. A giant (read: “evil”) corporation behind this space endeavour? Never seen that in a sci-fi alien story! The only thing missing was the meat-head soldier archetype but there are no weapons or fighting in the book so they’re absent.

    Wondering where the drama/story here is? There isn’t any! Maybe you’re thinking Oasis is some wonderful vista paradise like Pandora in Avatar? Think again! It’s a completely flat landscape with no discernible features. The Oasans are completely isolated besides some weird duck creatures who appear a couple times (so how did they evolve exactly?), their simple huts, and their fields of whiteflower which they grow to trade for medicine with the humans. I don’t need the landscape to be extraordinary I just wish Faber would give me something, anything, than nothing!

    This is barely genre writing. Because it’s set on an alien planet doesn’t make it sci-fi, or at least it’s not a good representation of that genre’s heights (despite the way some readers look down upon sci-fi as a “lesser” genre). Good sci-fi is imaginative – The Book of Strange Things is not.

    Peter’s wife Bea, though extremely whiny and annoying, tells Peter and the reader through her emails (sent via the Shoot – why did they rename a computer, a Shoot? What was wrong with “computer”?) of troubles on Earth, which I mentioned earlier. These emails are the only real conflict in the book by the way.

    It seems that her story would’ve been much more interesting to read than Peter’s. Instead we’re subjected to the most monotonous non-story ever: Peter telling the Oasans some Bible stories. Peter helping them harvest the whiteflower crop. Peter trying to learn their language. Peter having trouble sleeping and looking at the stars. Peter walking across a flat landscape drinking melon-flavoured water. Peter staring blankly at nothing. This book is nearly 600 pages long!! Cut out the tedious crap and you’ll have a mediocre 100-150 page novel instead of an awful 600 page one.

    And speaking of Bea’s increasingly difficult life on doomed Earth, USIC do their best to censor their off-world staff from news of Earth’s collapse by ripping out pages of magazines/newspapers arriving at the base - but they don’t censor Bea’s emails even though they have the capability to do so? Her emails contain the most damning information!

    I will say that Faber’s prose is for the most part clear and accessible. He may not be able to tell a tight, fast-moving story anymore, but he can still write quite well. And I did like some scenes in the book, particularly with the former minister who went native, and Grainger, the USIC pharmacist, as she fell apart on Oasis. I had her and Peter pegged to have a rushed, embarrassing affair though Faber thankfully steered clear of that – though he did everything he could to hint at its possibility!

    And I liked how many of the USIC characters were named after Marvel Comics writers from the Silver Age, in particular Jakob Kurtzberg, the missing former minister, who mirrors the real name of Jack Kirby (technically a Golden Age creator). Who was Jack Kirby, non-comics reader? Creator of much of the Marvel Universe: Captain America, Thor, Hulk, Fantastic Four and the X-Men to name a few - and a preacher of a kind himself who lived in the stars!

    Faber’s look at Christianity is just not insightful. What do we learn? That Bea converted Peter when he was a troubled criminal. He bought into the religion and became a personable minister. Away from his wife, her troubles overwhelm her and she loses her faith. And?

    Also, how easy is it to write a devout Christian character? “Jesus saves. God has a plan for everything. Trust in the Bible and our Lord – he shall provide” etc. This isn’t great writing or characterisation.

    The Christian overtones to the story were too on the nose and weren’t enough to redeem it. The book has 28 chapters like the Gospel of Matthew (which is repeatedly referenced), Peter is bitten by an animal, seeming to die (in the eyes of the Oasans) and return a la Christ after the crucifixion (not really but to the Oasans perhaps), the walking through the wilderness with Grainger (temptation). Does Peter become like Christ to them? Is this how Christ was to us – an alien? Is this how religions start? Maybe some people will be blown away by these aspects of the book but I could not care less – I was beaten into apathy at this point by the slug-like pacing.

    As there’s no real story the book doesn’t build to a big finish, or any kind of finish at all really, and simply ends. It couldn’t be more dissatisfying or anticlimactic.

    Faber’s Strange New Things is a deeply unimaginative novel. The sci-fi element is poorly conceived and uninteresting – Oasis and the Oasans could not be more dull. The book drags on for hundreds of pages without a plot, with barely any character development, and with hardly a thing happening to break up the boredom. The whole “Earth’s collapse” felt forced, done because Bea’s life needed to get worse so that she and Peter could fight via email, not because it was convincing on any level. I mean, China invading the Middle East – what?!

    I’ve enjoyed Faber’s work over the years from Under the Skin to The Fire Gospel to his short stories in Some Rain Must Fall, but The Book of Strange New Things is gimmicky and horribly boring. It’s far too long with much too little substance. Arguably this is his worst novel – I can see why he’s saying he’s giving up on writing any more of them seeing how uninspired this one turned out! Unlike the Oasans and the Bible, most people will have more than enough of this book long before its end. It was a real struggle to get there and not really worth it.

    (Side note: there’s some question among some reviewers as to why the Oasans would so readily accept Christianity though Faber does explain this in the book. Here’s why, and it’s actually one of the few parts of the novel I liked:

  • Will Byrnes
    Feb 02, 2015

    Sustaining a relationship over a long distance presents serious challenges. I tried it once or twice in my twenties. Of course that was back befor

    Sustaining a relationship over a long distance presents serious challenges. I tried it once or twice in my twenties. Of course that was back before the invention of the wheel, when communications technology lacked the immediacy of Facetime, Skyping, texting, instant messenger, even cell phones and e-mail. And calling long distance entailed costs far in excess of what one might incur today. Distance, it turns out, did not make the hearts involved grow fonder. Pastor Peter Leigh and his wife, Bea, face some of the challenges many of us did back in the distant past. Of course they are already married, which has to boost one’s commitment to keeping in touch. (or not, depending) But the distances involved make my New York to London, or DC, or New Hampshire connections seem paltry in comparison. Instead of hundreds or thousands of miles, try trillions. And despite the scientific advance that allows spacecraft to cover vast distances by jumping through worm-holes, the communication tech is a lot more like Pony Express than Star Trek

    communicators. One might think that is probably not such a big deal to Peter, as he did not possess a television and was not interested in reading magazines or newspapers, but the loss of connection to Bea

    a big deal, particularly as existential concerns are a clear and present issue for both.

    Peter had been recruited by the mysterious USIC corporation (we never learn what the letters stand for) to minister to the locals on a planet named Oasis. They refer to the bible as

    . Although he wanted Bea to come with him, she was not given an imprimatur by the selection committee, so he is off to spread

    , solo.

    There is a trinity of material relationships involved. Peter interacts with the residents of the USIC base, some more than others. Alexandra Grainger is his handler, and some dynamic tension develops between the two. He has dealings with other USIC staff, but it is spread lightly across the group. He communicates with Bea through a poor excuse for e-mail com-tech. It is called a Shoot. But seems it might have been better called a Toss. It is limited to text-only, for one. Messages have to pass the censor before being transmitted, and there is no certainty when the message will get through. Peter’s communications with Bea consist primarily of her describing the accelerating collapse of economies, of civilization itself on Earth, spurred by large dollops of natural catastrophe. Makes one want to hurry home, no? The third interaction is Peter with the locals, or as the Terran sorts refer to them, Oasans.

    The residents of the planet Oasis are humanoid, although looking not much like us, at least the us one sees without the benefit of hallucinogens. Here is a description, which is presented about one fifth the way in, but if you prefer to wait until you read the book, I am putting it under a

    shield. Somehow they (or at least a sizeable portion of the local populace) manifest an intense desire to better know a savior. Did they arrive at this need through some sort of divine revelation? Was it prompted by the prior cleric, say, the intriguingly named Jacob

    berg? I found myself wondering about the state of his health. A quote from Desmond Tutu also ran across my mental crawl

    Fittingly, I suppose, Peter does not question the origin of the locals’ interest in Jesus and the bible, opting to take the purity of their interest on faith. Much of the story is on how Peter goes about establishing his church on Oasis, how he gets to know and feel for the locals, and what he learns about the physical environment in which he is living. He is trying his best to be the rock on which this church is built. The Oasans have a culture, a community, but they are very unlike humans.

    The environment that Faber concocts for Oasis is, despite a gross similarity to the planet we all know and litter on, quite different. Maybe it takes more exploration, but where are the mountains, rivers, lakes, oceans, forests? It does seem like a pretty lightly seeded rock for the most part. But it has some interesting characteristics, mostly having to do with how water cycles through, and how the local flora is transformed into edibles. There is also a lower life form that offers some surprises when it appears in numbers.

    - from New Republic.com

    I am no particular fan of religion, but I found Peter to be a very engaging, honest, sincere sort. He is possessed of a powerful faith, which tends toward the bromitic, but he seems a pretty good guy and it is easy to get past differing belief systems to wish him well, not only in his attempts to fulfill his mission on Oasis, but in his struggle to sustain his marriage. It was Bea, after all, who had found a drunk, homeless Peter hitting bottom in the hospital in which she was working as a nurse, and resurrected his spirit with a bit of the old time religion. It is no wonder that he clings to his beliefs like his old self might have to the last available bottle.

    The loneliness of the long-distance missionary was fueled, after the writing had begun, by a dire event.

    It certainly seemed to me that the devastation being reported on earth might have been intended to echo damage to Peter and Bea’s marriage. And also might be a literary projection of the damage disease was wreaking on Faber's wife.

    The book is hardly short at 500 pages. I found it slow going, although Faber manages to infuse enough tension and mystery into his tale to keep you turning the pages. How will Peter and Bea manage? Will Peter ever be able to go home? Why is earth going to hell? Will there be a home to go back to? What’s the deal with the Oasans, and why did they get all religious? Are they really serene or is there a dark side? Why did the Oasans pick up and leave their town when USIC arrived, setting up a greater distance away? Are they hiding something or merely trying to maintain a comfortable margin? What happened to Kurtzberg? Why does a corporation employ a missionary?

    Home figures large as a theme. Some of the base employees see themselves more as French Foreign Legion types, unconnected to place, than most of us might be. Is home a location, a community, a state of mind, a relationship? Much thought goes into figuring out the right thing to do in difficult situations, which makes this tale one of moral and not merely physical survival. Biblical and religious imagery appears with some frequency. One cannot but think of Noah when Bea is reporting on incessant rain, and biblical end times certainly pop to mind as she describes the natural catastrophes that seem to be occurring on a daily basis. Peter’s time with the locals, and being out of touch with base, reminds one of earlier, lengthy sojourns in the desert. The locals have a ritual that seemed quite resonant with earthly communion.

    This is not an action adventure novel, jam-packed with a new danger every chapter, car chases, gun battles. It is about survival, personal, emotional and big picture. You will get through it, but will not inhale it. There is enough to savor that taking one’s time will be rewarding.

    Posted - 2/20/15

    Book Published – 10/28/2014 - Trade Paperback - 6/30/15

    =============================

    Links to the author’s

    website. Check out the video on his bonus material page. His FB connection was last updated in 2011, so I left it out, and I did not find a twitter account for him.

    Dutch-born Faber was inspired by the creative geniuses of Marvel Comics as a kid, and in the acknowledgments section, mentions that all the surnames used in the book are based on those of the Marvel artists. He adds that the character Jacob Kurtzberg has a lot to do with Jack Kirby.

    There are several musical numbers mentioned in the book – here is a link to one, Patsy Cline singing

    There is a very interesting interview with Faber in

    In this link to

    , there is a video of Faber talking about this book, a text interview with Zachary Wagman, Faber’s editor and a 2003 text interview with Faber

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  • Maxwell
    Jul 04, 2015

    My thoughts about this book are complicated. With

    , Michel Faber tackles really big epistemological and existential issues through the journey of an English preacher to outer space. Peter, our protagonist, is sent by a mysterious corporation called USIC to be a pastor to the alien race on a planet trillions of lightyears away called the Oasis. It's an interesting premise and a unique blend of sci-fi and literary fiction, but I don't think it really delivers on what

    My thoughts about this book are complicated. With

    , Michel Faber tackles really big epistemological and existential issues through the journey of an English preacher to outer space. Peter, our protagonist, is sent by a mysterious corporation called USIC to be a pastor to the alien race on a planet trillions of lightyears away called the Oasis. It's an interesting premise and a unique blend of sci-fi and literary fiction, but I don't think it really delivers on what it has to offer.

    Firstly, we don't get a lot of explanation for much of the novel's set-up. I know the book isn't focused on the sci-fi elements as much as it is on the themes of marriage, religion and humanity. But without giving us much reasoning for the space mission in the first place, I felt it hard to fully understand why the whole thing was even happening. We get some conspiracy near the end of the novel, but it didn't feel justified. And my other issue with the book is with the characters: they don't feel authentic. For me, they never went beyond cardboard cut-outs of what human beings might look like from an outsider's perspective. Even being inside Peter's head was pretty dull, and so it was hard to connect emotionally with such an emotionally-charged story.

    After the 60% mark or so, I found the letters between Peter and his wife, who is left on earth as he embarks on his lackluster mission, to be repetitive. I wanted something more climactic to happen, something that was more in line with how Peter's character was progressing. And unlike most novels, this one had a more interesting middle portion, whereas the beginning and end really petered out (no pun intended). But in the end it really fizzles to a dull conclusion, and wasn't able to save me (pun intended) from giving this book more than 2 stars. Definitely a disappointment, as I had pretty high hopes for this one based on recommendations.

    I will say, though, that Faber has a talent as a writer, but I don't think this was the story for me. I'm interested in checking out more of his work, perhaps the highly acclaimed historical fiction,

    .

  • Cecily
    Feb 06, 2016

    This book can easily be (mis)taken as generic sci-fi, exploring the impact of colonialism on the existing inhabitants, as well as the newcomers: in the near future, a Christian minister leaves his beloved wife and travels through hyperspace to a human colony on another planet, where his role is to evangelise to alien beings.

    That is the medium, but it’s not the message. The message isn’t even the Biblical one that saved Peter from drugs and homelessness, and led

    This book can easily be (mis)taken as generic sci-fi, exploring the impact of colonialism on the existing inhabitants, as well as the newcomers: in the near future, a Christian minister leaves his beloved wife and travels through hyperspace to a human colony on another planet, where his role is to evangelise to alien beings.

    That is the medium, but it’s not the message. The message isn’t even the Biblical one that saved Peter from drugs and homelessness, and led him to this mission. There is no message.

    This is not a preachy book, even though it’s about a preacher. Rather than a message, it’s an open-minded, open-ended exploration of separation, dislocation, translation, miscommunication, God, faith, truth, addiction, madness, scars, healing (“the technique of Jesus”), loss, and what it means to be human.

    ,

    every sense,

    every sense.

    It is profound and disturbing without being horrific. It’s a slowly-told story that’s nevertheless a page-turner. Like physics, it focuses on the big (Bea’s situation on Earth) and the small (Peter’s on planet Oasis). Ultimately, there are few answers - is that like physics, too?!

    Most of us take language for granted, except when we’re abroad, or if we have an impairment. But there are many ways to be misunderstood. Problems with language of all kinds are at the heart of the alienation pumped through the veins of this book. Although some of the examples seem extreme, they all have implications for ordinary lives on Earth.

    Oasans have no identifiable eyes, no readable facial expressions, and no discernible variations of intonation to indicate their mood. Peter can’t tell what gender they are - or even how many genders they have. They look so similar, the only way he can distinguish them is by the unique colour of each one’s garments (hooded robe, soft boots, and gloves) - although eventually, he can recognise some by their voices. Of course, he finds this bewildering, with very little idea of how he’s being received and understood. But on the phone, online, or if talking to a woman in a burqa, we cope without facial expressions and body language.

    The Oasans' language “sounded like a field of brittle reeds and rain-sodden lettuces being cleared by a machete”. Some can speak reasonable English, though they all struggle to pronounce ‘T’ and ‘S’ sounds. They are reluctant for Peter to learn their language, let alone translate the Bible into it: “In foreign phrases, exotic power lurked”.

    Thus Peter embarks on a Bible paraphrase in English that omits ‘T’ and ‘S’ sounds as much as possible, as well as eliminating things they have no experience of, such as fish, sheep, and money!

    But can truth survive through multiple translations and paraphrases, conducted over millennia, through the lenses of different cultures? Peter notes that the Old Testament phrase for “of old” or “long ago” is closer to “from afar”, which is apt for an intergalactic missionary.

    Distance, reliance on technology, and consequent time delays, are a huge source of alienation and misunderstanding. Much of the story is epistolary - messages between Peter and Bea - and the gradual, but seemingly inevitable increase in misunderstanding foreshadows their deepening alienation from each other.

    When communication is impaired, relationships change, invariably for the worse. If you’re alienated from one group, perhaps the only way is to integrate with others. What then is “otherness”? Who is the alien?

    USIC, the corporation that created and runs the colony, is suitably mysterious, as is the base on planet Oasis, and its bland, unemotional staff. There is rudimentary email, but no internet or phones (not even phones within the base), photography is “not practicable”, and there are no locks on personal quarters.

    The planet itself has a strange climate and beauty that only Peter appreciates, and the native inhabitants are welcoming, but mysterious, strange and new.

    The result is a benign but sinister setting, veiled in secrecy and evasion, that numbs the mind.

    Some aspects are gradually revealed, but much of importance is never explained. If this is sci-fi, it’s very light on the “sci”, and even on the socio-political angle. It’s the medium, not the message.

    One striking feature is that Peter comments on the (presumed) race of everyone - literally everyone - he encounters. And yet he’s by far the most accepting of the Oasans. Maybe he’s excessively difference-aware, rather than anything worse, though “variations in pigment aside, humans were all part of the same species” and some dubious observations about gender and sexuality don’t really clarify matters. Maybe it’s just another aspect of his own otherness.

    When you’ve lost your partner, home, culture, language, food, and climate, and you’re even doubting your faith, what’s left but your sanity? And how can you keep that in the absence of the others?

    Watching a disintegrating mind is probably the most painful vicarious experience, as anyone who’s had a loved one with Alzheimer’s or mental illness knows. The helplessness of the observer, and the seeming inevitability of the decline is agony. (I’m not suggesting that applies in all cases, with all conditions.)

    For me, that was the most powerful aspect of the book. It is gradual, unsentimental, sympathetic, powerful. Faber wrote it while his wife was dying, but he’s not, and never has been, religious. He asks where God is when tragedy strikes, but suggests no answer.

    • “I miss living through the visible moments of life with you.”

    • “To his wife, these messages were already history. To him, they were a frozen present.”

    • “His heart and mind were trapped in his body, and his body was here.”

    • The rains “were indescribable… but seeing them would leave a mark on him that would not be left on her.”

    • “The rain wasn’t falling in straight lines, it was… dancing!... elegant arcs… a leisurely sweeping from one side of the sky to the other.”

    • “He was enveloped in a moist warm breeze, a swirling balm… The air lapped against his cheeks, tickled his ears, flowed over his lips and hands.”

    • “The air here was a presence, a presence so palpable that he was tempted to believe he could let himself fall and the air would simply catch him like a pillow… As it nuzzled his skin it almost promised that it would.”

    • “The air currents, so similar to water currents, could not move silently, but must churn and hiss like ocean waves.”

    • “The warm air embraced them with balmy enthusiasm.”

    • The moist atmosphere “was enjoyable… but also an assault: the way the air immediately ran up the sleeves of his shirt, licked his eyelids and ears, dampened his chest.”

    • “They truly were

    , plural… The air all around him was ecstatic with water, bursting with it. Silvery lariats of droplets lashed against the ground, lashed against him.”

    • “The Oasan settlement wasn’t what you’d call a city. More like a suburb, erected in the middle of a wasteland.”

    • “Where the ‘S’ should have been, there was a noise like a ripe fruit being thumbed into two halves.”

    • King James “Bible verses were like a particularly mellow alcoholic drink”, whereas Peter’s paraphrases were like “local home-brew, a moonshine compromise”. So “maybe he shouldn't dilute its strangeness”.

    • Trying to explain the Oasans is “like trying to explain what a smell looks like or what a sound tastes like”.

    • “The bigger the company, the less you can figure out what it does.”

    • “A curious absence of any image that evoked a specific, currently existing spot on Earth, or a passionate emotion.” That, of a corridor plastered in a wide variety of posters.

    • "You cannot create a thriving community, let alone a new civilisation, by putting together a bunch of people who are no fucking trouble . . . You want to build Paradise, you gotta build it on war, on blood, on envy, on naked greed."

    • “Her boringness was so perfect that it had transcended itself to become a kind of eccentricity.”

    • “He did not lose his temper. He had no temper to lose. That was his tragedy, and his mark of dignity too.”

    • “His calmness had impressed them… Without knowing it, he’d always been an honorary alien.”

    • “The pungent odour of Tartaglione’s loneliness dispelled some of the fog in Peter’s brain.”

    • Scars “were not suffering but triumph: triumph against decay, triumph against death… not a disfigurement, a miracle”.

    • “Belief was a place that people didn’t leave until they absolutely must. The Oasans had been keen to follow him to the Kingdom of Heaven, but they weren’t keen to follow him into the valley of doubt.”

    The Book of Strange New Things is what the Oasans call the Bible. However, in Faber’s short story collection, Some Rain Must Fall (published in 1998 and reviewed

    ), there’s a piece called Toy Story, about God’s childhood. It includes the line "His eyes would goggle at the

    he found there [in the abandoned universe]... bottled gases which plumed out in the shape of a star when smashed free, huge fluffs of sliver fibre spilling out of the bins like foam... enigmatically specific crystal implements... and... broken engines of paradox."

    Perhaps in a nod to Under The Skin, reviewed

    , on the second page, Peter and Bea discuss whether to pick up a hitchhiker.

    One of the characters is called Billy Graham - but not the minister. In the Acknowledgements, Faber says many of the names are from, or loosely based on, Marvel Comics, but surely Billy Graham conjures an early televangelist in most people’s minds.

    I wonder if the ubiquitous and multi-purpose whiteflower is a nod to the Wompom of Flanders and Swann. Lyrics

    and F&S singing it

    .

    For a very different take on the missionary experience, as suggested by Caroline in the comments, see Barbara Kingsolver's

    , reviewed

    .

    Picture source for man in space suit in ruined church:

  • Violet wells
    May 14, 2016

    No surprise this gets an endorsement from David Mitchell because it’s a fabulous feat of wiring exuberant entertainment into intelligent storytelling, a bit like the literary equivalent of Stephen Spielberg. The secret of this novel’s immense charm maybe is that appeals to the teenager inside. In fact, when, towards the end, it loses some of its charm it’s because it’s stopped appealing to the teenager inside. It’s suddenly got a bit earnestly serious on us, it’s forsaken its ironic mischief and

    No surprise this gets an endorsement from David Mitchell because it’s a fabulous feat of wiring exuberant entertainment into intelligent storytelling, a bit like the literary equivalent of Stephen Spielberg. The secret of this novel’s immense charm maybe is that appeals to the teenager inside. In fact, when, towards the end, it loses some of its charm it’s because it’s stopped appealing to the teenager inside. It’s suddenly got a bit earnestly serious on us, it’s forsaken its ironic mischief and the adult inside isn’t quite as willing to suspend disbelief and her critical faculties as the teenager. It’s hard not to feel cheated by the ending. Probably because this is a novel that doesn’t have an ending. Or at least anything resembling a satisfactory one. Just about everything is left to our imagination. It ends on the note a sequel would begin.

    I’ve always struggled with SF usually because I weary of all the exposition, the attempts the writer makes to convince us his world is technologically and scientifically and culturally plausible. Here Peter goes to an airport with his wife in much the manner all of us have arrived at an airport. The fact that he’s catching an interstellar shuttle is treated almost as a commonplace event and within a few pages he’s arrived on the distant planet of Oasis but because of the easy, almost matter of fact way in which it’s written we’re able to take this colossal test on our ability to suspend disbelief in our stride with barely a raised eyebrow. Peter has been sent to Oasis to spread the word of the gospel to the aliens who inhabit the planet. His predecessor has mysteriously vanished. At the USIC base, the shadowy corporation who employs him, there’s immediately something subtly sinister afoot, a brooding Gothic atmosphere of skeletons waiting to come out of closets. Without wanting to give much away, the first meeting with the aliens is as memorable and funny a scene as you’re likely to read all year.

    You could say, on the one hand, this is a novel about colonialism and the role of the missionary – there’s a lot of satire about rapacious exploitation of resources dressed up as benign altruism with the minister as the unknowing puppet. But it’s equally a novel about marriage, about the sometimes conflicting emotional spaces occupied by men and women. Peter and his wife communicate with each other via interstellar email and these missives form a large part of the novel. Life on planet earth is a growing crescendo of catastrophes, Armageddon just around the corner. Peter and his wife Bea thus find themselves in growing conflict, unable to enter into the perspective of the other, both insisting on the primary importance of their own reality. This conflict is humorously blown up into a kind of comic book absolutism – What could be more important than spreading the word of the Gospel to aliens? What could be more important than the end of the world as we know it? A lot of this novel is about failures in communication, most humorously highlighted with Peter’s attempts to rewrite Bible passages so the Oasans will be able to both understand and read them aloud (they have an insurmountable problem pronouncing s and t, both of which are replaced when they speak by hieroglyphics in the text). The Oasans also don't have recognisable faces and so, where Peter is concerned, are denied the most visual form of expression by which we communicate with each other. Peter can't even work out which sex each of them are.

    It’s also worth mentioning that there’s no criticism of the Christian faith in this novel. Peter and his beliefs are treated with a generosity of spirit by Faber. It’s the politicisation of religion that comes in for both mockery and attack.