Sunday, July 24, 2016
“The Book Of Strange New Things”
Scottish writer Michel Faber tells an interviewer for the Church Times that though he is an atheist, “I don’t see that as any credit to me…. I’m very sad that I lost my faith, and I’m very sad that it’s not there to sustain me in the sorrows that I’ve had to deal with in my life, particularly the loss of my wife.”
That makes Faber’s novel, “The Book Of Strange New Things” ($17 in paperback from Hogarth; also for Amazon Kindle) especially poignant. It’s the story of a young British married couple, Peter and Beatrice Leigh, he a pastor of a small church, she a nurse, who apply to a shadowy multinational organization called USIC in answer to the company’s call for Christian missionaries.
Only Peter is selected; they will be separated. In the world of the book, “separation” means Peter boards a spacecraft and “jumps” to Oasis, a planet unimaginable light years distant. His only way of communicating with Bea is through a kind of email system (no pictures).
USIC has established a base. Natives provide food called whiteflower in return for pharmaceuticals, but are balking without a pastor who can speak to them from the Bible, what they call “The Book of Strange New Things.”
An Oasan is a short, bipedal being; “their spindly arms and webbed feet merged in a tangle of translucent flesh that might contain—in some form unrecognizable to him—a mouth, nose, eyes.”
Peter grows distant from Bea, who writes increasingly panicked messages about a world collapsing around her. Peter can sermonize, but he is no novelist, failing repeatedly to convey to Bea his inner life.
The book is a quiet meditation on separation and the limits of (Peter’s) faith. “The holy book he’d spent so much of his life preaching from had one cruel flaw: it was not very good at offering encouragement or hope to those who weren’t religious.” Peter is torn between building the Oasan church and going home (in light of the horrific words of his wife’s final email).
Set against a science-fictional background, the book sensitively explores the meaning of faith and meaning where there is no faith.