The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber

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. images (6)


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