They say never work with children and animals. They could just as well say don’t write about aliens and God. A raft of readers hate sci-fi, and probably more sheer away at the very idea of a novel about a missionary. And yet… And yet The Book of Strange New Things works. It is in many ways extraordinary; its narrative drive, its lack of sentimentality, its occasional (emotional) brutality, its humour (albeit rare) all add up to a novel which is both intelligent, thought-provoking and as readable as a potboiler.
Peter, ex-junkie, loving husband, cat-lover, sets off on a journey. The novel opens with his farewell to his wife, and we gather that he will be gone a while and that he might be in danger. It is not immediately revealed that he is a missionary, and when we do realise this, it comes as a surprise to learn that his mission is not in the far reaches of some Amazonian jungle, but in outer space. We are in a future in which Nasa no longer exists, but a major space programme does. Peter is being sent to a planet named Oasis, where he will be not so much a pastor to the crew stationed out there, but a missionary for its inhabitants, the Oasans.
It is phenomenally difficult to make one care about aliens, especially when they are contrasted with human beings. It is one thing to produce the Moomins, who live in their own bubble and whom we basically anthropomorphise; but to produce a race with faces like foetuses and who are only distinguishable from each other by the colour of their robes is a much harder task. In the end it is not the Oasans we care about, so much as their effect on Peter, and even his on them.
Peter wakes up, after a month’s sleep in which he has made ‘the Jump’ (the journey to Oasis), disorientated and confused. Everything, naturally, is different. The water is melon-flavoured, the air so hot and humid it feels as though it is invading his ears. The landscape is barren, the grim buildings ‘monumentally ugly — like all architecture not built by religious devotees or mad eccentrics’, and the much longer cyles of light and dark destabilise him. Why must they keep piping Patsy Cline and Frank Sinatra into the mess room?
At the heart of the story is love: Peter’s love for Jesus, his love for his wife Bea, who was not allowed to accompany him, and his growing love for the Oasans, who have already been introduced to the ‘Book of Strange New Things’ (the Bible) by their mysteriously missing previous missionary. As the messages from Peter’s wife, stuck in a society which is falling apart and increasingly brutal, become more desperate, so he begins to differentiate between the Oasans, and even to learn their language. Faber does not attempt to humanise or sentimentalise the aliens, and part of the success of the novel lies in Peter’s own confusion as to who or what these creatures actually are.
He is a true old-fashioned missionary. Interestingly, in this futuristic world, it is the King James Bible that he carries with him, and from which he quotes extensively. The Oasan converts, who have renamed themselves Jesus Lover One, Jesus Lover Two etc, embrace the ideas of Christianity, but not the Old Testament stories through which Peter has been accustomed to woo the ignorant. Questions raised in his mission, combined with what is happening at home, begin to destabilise Peter, who is almost alone among the tranquil crew of base camp not to accept the status quo unthinkingly.
This book is very different from The Crimson Petal and the White and has more in common with Faber’s first published novel, Under the Skin. Its success does not depend on its setting, and what happens to its main characters is left completely open. What Michel Faber has done triumphantly is to write a lucid, unaffected novel about love, morals and faith (not just religious faith) which carries the reader through every one of its 600 pages.