Michel Faber’s latest, and apparently last book, is indeed a strange new thing. It kept throwing me back to Interstellar, probably because they share the plot twist of a man leaving his family for a dangerous voyage into space. One big difference is that Faber’s book doesn’t get bogged down by technological intricacies and black hole theories – it is pure emotion, while deep space, as the final frontier, only serves to enhance the feeling of strangeness, disorientation, and the fantastic uncanny. In that sense, it’s closer to Solaris, as it combines exploration of the husband/wife dynamic with the strange workings of an alien planet on the human psyche.
Peter, the main protagonist, is a Christian pastor sent to the planet Oasis ostensibly on a mission to spread the Gospel to the native inhabitants. The Gospel, as it turns out, is the Book of Strange New Things to the natives. Peter is given precious little information both about his destination and his future flock, which in retrospect makes you wonder at his readiness to jump into a project that he knows so little about. His pastoral fervor matches and reflects that of his historical predecessors during times of colonial expansion. Another problematic aspect to his missionary calling is his willingness to abandon an equally zealous, Christ-loving wife, who for some initially undisclosed reason is not chosen to accompany him on his mission.
The whole project on Oasis is shrouded in mystery from the start, which purposefully creates an atmosphere of vague anxiety, growing by increments as the motives of the corporation funding the mission are slowly revealed to Peter in bits and pieces, parallel to his wife’s news flashes from Earth. Here the book approaches Interstellar again, in that it explores the notion that our days on planet Earth are numbered. We find this out through Bea’s gradually more and more sombre letters, which paint an Earth collapsing on itself.
Peter’s realization that the corporation has been manipulating him, and that Earth is approaching the end of days, is painfully slow. He is depicted as a lamb of God: his lack of guile, genuine love and acceptance of other people, make him a child-like figure, innocent and naive. All this despite his dark past as a homeless alcoholic and drug addict. He seems to have been quite literally born again, with a clean slate. This is maybe why the women in his life feel protective of him and baby him: Bea, who rescued him from his depraved former life, handles all practicalities in their daily life, and is both mother and lover to him. During his time on Oasis, she hides from him the full extent of the deteriorating conditions on Earth, and it’s other people who piece it together for him. Grainger, his mentor of sorts on Oasis, is another female guardian angel who looks after his well-being as he seems to take no thought for his personal safety.
The females in Peter’s life also enable him to be intensely selfish, and showcase a typically man’s ability to focus solely on work to the exclusion of pre-existing emotional connections: as Bea gave her blessing and full support to his mission, and their relationship is now reduced to sporadic messages across the time-space continuum, Peter is easily lost in his grandiose mission and new-found connection to an alien species through God. He realizes too late that his growing detachment from all earthly affairs, coupled with his obliviousness as to the whys and wheretofores of his mission, has created a deep rift between them and may have cost him not just his marriage, but the deepest connection he’s ever made with another human being.
The Book of Strange New Things elegantly latches onto the legacy of science fiction art and works such as 2001: Space Odyssey, Solaris, and Gravity, which pit the destiny of men against the vast indifference of space. It is also the story of a marriage, and the fight to preserve that which makes us most human – the ability to connect emotionally and psychologically to another person. It leaves many of the questions it poses unanswered, but not without hope. It ends the way it begins: with a journey into an unknown future, mirroring the mystery of life, and repeating the cycle of birth-death-rebirth. Highly recommended.