From a strange planet far, far away in the universe
FICTION: The Book of Strange New Things, Michel Faber, Canongate, tpbk, 590pp, €22.45
How does a book set both on earth and on a far off planet somehow manage not to really be a work of sci-fi, but instead to be an intense human psychological exploration? Such is the case with Michel Faber's sixth novel, which presents itself as something of a new worlds' bible, and is remarkable, singular, most unearthly and quite brilliant.
This is the story of Peter Leigh, a somewhat naïve and bumbling missionary, with strong faith but not much self-awareness. Peter had a squalid past life of drugs and immorality, until he found faith, or faith found him, when he was at his most battered and bruised by the evils of the world. Faith found him through Bea, now his beloved wife, a nurse, and they live in a nondescript house in a nondescript British suburb with their adored cat Joshua.
But now Peter is being sent by a mysterious company USIC to a distant planet Oasis, named so by a little girl from Oskaloosa, Iowa. She won a competition 'Name A New World'. And this is how our world, our space, is being decided, public game shows. What exactly USIC plans for Oasis remains unclear, but Peter's role is to provide Christian guidance not for the USIC settlement but for the original inhabitants, the Oasans, who are very hungry for it.
The Book of Strange New Things does explore faith and what faith means, but this develops through several love stories: the love between a man and his wife; the love between a preacher and his flock; the love of the known interacting with the unknown. And it all plays out against an almost apocalyptic earthly backdrop. Our world is dying, killing itself. The people left behind, including Bea, are fighting for basic survival. There is death, too, on the alien world, but there is also discovery, and there is the exciting possibility of the unexplored.
Faber asks vast, profound questions, but he does so gently; they are slipped in with the everyday. As we wonder about how Bea will get Joshua to sleep peacefully without Peter in the bed, we worry about language in its barest form, communication, what it means. Bea and Peter only have the USIC equivalent of emails that are sporadic at best to maintain their intimacy.
But how can words tapped out on a screen about an entirely other world have much impact on this world? How can Bea relate to Peter's descriptions of the Oasans, these creatures with no eyes or real mouths, who speak through head clefts? And how can Peter react to descriptions of plagues and devastation on a world that now seems entirely alien to him?
The Book of Strange New Things looks at what it means to be human. Is it our outward physical shape, our minds, our souls? If it is our souls, then these strange aliens he has created, the Oasans who live in Oasis, also seem to have souls; they have independent ideas, they have faith, they forge relationships.
Faber has considered alien life before, memorably in his novel Under the Skin, which was about an extraterrestrial arriving on earth and was made into a film starring Scarlett Johansson. But here, he is at his most philosophical, his most political, his most religious and yet it is written with such a light engaging touch that The Book of Strange New Things is utterly captivating.
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