The Book of Strange New Things, by Michel Faber
Peter Leigh, an English pastor, is selected for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: to travel to a distant planet and teach the inhabitants about the Christian faith. He leaves behind his wife Beatrice (Bea), cat Joshua, and his church, in order to take the gospel to the far reaches of the universe; a planet named Oasis, where an organisation called USIC is attempting to establish a colony.
When he arrives, he receives a warm reception from the Oasan people (if ‘people’ is the correct term!) who, although withdrawn, far away from the USIC base, are eager to welcome him and to learn from him. To Peter’s surprise they already have a basic understanding of Christianity, and rather than being hostile, this community of ‘Jesus Lovers’ (a self-chosen title) want Peter to read to them regularly from the Scriptures – ‘The Book of Strange New Things’ – and to teach them about ‘The Technique of Jesus.’
The Book of Strange New Things is the first novel I’ve read by Michel Faber, and whilst I’m not usually a sci-fi reader, I was drawn to it because of the concept, which I felt would allow the author to explore some interesting themes. And he did. The novel weaves deftly between some of the biggest questions with which our generation needs to wrestle: What is the nature of humanity? Is there room for religion in an age dominated by scientism? How should we think about providence when little miracles sit side-by-side with vast tragedies? What is the destiny of the world? And to what extent should we expect God to intervene to alleviate suffering?
Rather than feeling distantly futuristic, the themes had a real sense of timeliness to them, and the reaction of some of the older members of Peter’s congregation could have been lifted from recent comments on the plight of asylum seekers entering Europe:
A few of our congregation – the older members, mostly – have been grumbling that we’ve got “no business” preaching the word of God to “aliens”. The argument goes that Jesus did for humans only. In fact if you pressed Mrs Shankland on the issue, she’d probably tell you that Jesus died for white middle-class English people from the Home Counties! […] So the grumblings go on. “Why not China?” There’s millions needing [the gospel] there, dear.” Thanks, Mrs Shanks, for those words of wisdom.’ (p157)
Apart from Mrs Shankland’s brief appearance, I was pleasantly surprised by the way in which people of faith were portrayed. Peter was depicted sensitively and positively. There were, of course, stock-pastor clichés that so often features in novels written by self-avowed atheists: he speaks in a tone and style befitting of a man twice his age, which made his 30-something age seem a little unbelievable; he writes off Paul as being anti-women with no explanation; he believes in a vague disembodied future and writes off those who believe in the physical resurrection from the dead as being ‘Lutheran-flavoured fundamentalists’ (p295), despite then immediately quoting from the unavoidably physical 1 Corinthians 15 and later from 2 Corinthians 5; and he has a Bible text for everything, which is often cheesy, and downright annoying – for example when he remarks that the Oasans all look the same except for their coloured robes: ‘By their fruits ye shall know them’.
But by and large, despite occasional triteness, the portrayal is positive. Peter himself remarks,
Most true things are kind of corny, don’t you think? But we make them more sophisticated out of sheer embarrassment. Simple truths with complicated clothes on. The only purpose of the linguistic dressing-up is so people won’t look at the contents of our naked hears and minds and say “How naff.”’ (p105)
…which seems at one level an attempt to justify his own corny words, but at another level expresses what I liked about his character: his authenticity. Peter Leigh is generally a likeable person; simple, uncomplicated, and very much human. He has a chequered past as an alcoholic, ex-junkie, homeless petty thief. He doesn’t seem ‘holier-than-thou’ and by and large he practices what he preaches.
He is neither a hellfire and brimstone guy, nor,
One of those decaffeinated Christians. The diabetic wafer. Doctrine-free, guilt-reduced, low in Last Judgment, 100% less Second Coming, no Armageddon. Might contain small traces of crucified Jew.’ (p495)
He takes a sensitive ‘incarnational’ approach to his life and work on the planet, which stands in contrast to everyone else at USIC who write off the Oasans as freaks and call their settlement ‘freaktown.’ He realises that his predecessor had a very distant approach; sleeping in his car outside the Oasan settlement, making no attempt to accommodate the Oasan’s inability to pronounce certain human syllables. Instead, he decides to live in the midst of the Oasans and goes to great lengths to adapt the words from the Book of Strange Things into ones that the Oasans can pronounce (avoiding ‘s’ ‘t’ and ‘ch’) as well as explaining concepts for which they had no frame of reference (e.g. sheep and shepherds).
As such, he is a compassionate and sensitive evangelist, keen to contextualise, and careful to avoid the dangers inherent in colonial Christianity. To what extent this approach was modelled on someone Faber knew or knew of, I cannot say. But the presence of a secondary character called BG – short for Billy Graham – was a curious and unexplained feature!
Concept and characterisation aside, the novel was generally enjoyable, although a little slow in places. As the story progressed, characters made sudden leaps in their personalities, which seemed unbelievably fast to me. (Interestingly it was the two main female characters who succumbed to sudden bursts of insanity, which made me wonder if it was Faber rather than Paul that had a problem with women!!)
I also found the ending to be disappointing. Without wanting to give too much away, there were themes which Faber set up through the interplay between Oasis and Earth and the people there-on, which he never carried through to the extent I had hoped. The novel is unusually pre-apocalyptic – and I felt it needed an apocalypse!! As snippets of news came through about catastrophes on Earth, questions about the purpose of USIC’s mission hung tantalisingly in the air, and were frustratingly left unexplored. As I approached the final chapters there were at least three scenarios I wanted the novel to continue to explore, which I shan’t say for fear of ruining the story for you. Suffice to say, it explored none of them!
But that criticism aside, I enjoyed the novel and would definitely recommend it. I’m not sure that I warmed to Faber’s writing enough to rush to read his other works, but as a Christian and a Pastor, I appreciated some of the questions this novel raised, the general tone it struck, and the glimpses of humanity that shone through.