Rating 3 stars
Michel Faber’s sixth novel inhabits a future that feels close enough to now for daily life to be the same but far enough away for interstellar travel to be possible. It’s a place where the endgames of capitalism and climate change are playing out.
The Book of Strange New Things is about Peter, a born again Christian minister, with a past that includes drug addiction, crime and homelessness, who applies for a role with the mysterious corporation USIC. Peter is childless, married to Beatrice, and doesn’t like the electronic gadgets and social media connectivity that everyone else embraces. Beatrice is a nurse. Alongside God, she’s Peter’s rescuer. She’s the fixer in their partnership, the woman who enables Peter’s new career. Faber asks us to believe that theirs is a symbiotic relationship. Without each other, they are nothing.
USIC is a company behind a lot of other companies, buying up failing businesses, buying out homeowners’ debts and allowing them to keep living in their homes in exchange for working for just enough to cover their bills.
The entire world seems to be in economic recession. USIC seems to be making the most of the situation. I hope Jeff Bezos hasn’t read this novel.
When USIC selects Peter for a mission but rejects Beatrice, he leaves Beatrice behind on Earth. Peter’s mission is to join a distant community, named Oasis by a child in a competition. Here, he is to live among the indigenous inhabitants of the planet and proselytise them to Christianity.
Faber has constructed a believable world. Some of it feels familiar from sci-fi films and books: the suspension of bodily systems during the transition from one sector of space to another, known as The Jump; the human base away from the indigenous inhabitants, where life goes on as normally as possible, but under the sterile glow of artificial light; the edgy camaraderie among those based permanently on the planet and those who come and go; the military air around proceedings. It made me think of the Alien films.
The indigenous inhabitants, whom Peter calls Oasans, don’t want to associate with their human invaders. Their first action, on realising that the humans are making a long-term base on their planet, is to move their town lock stock further away. What they do want, it seems, is the word of God. Why they want it is something of an enigma.
When Peter is taken on a visit to the town by Grainger, the pharmacist at the base tasked with helping him to settle in, he learns that the Oasans are happy to receive medical supplies from the humans, but nothing more. Until Grainger explains why Peter has come to the planet, that is. Peter receives an unexpected and apparently positive response to the news that he’s there to share the gospel of Christ with them. Peter doesn’t feel suspicious of this reception, but I did. My instinct was to think that someone had been there before him. Someone that Grainger hasn’t told him about.
This turns out to be true and adds a Heart of Darkness air to the novel. The previous missionary has disappeared, presumably gone native like the ivory trader Kurtz in Conrad’s tale. Is it coincidence that this missionary is called Kurtzberg?
There’s also an air of A Handful of Dust, with the Oasans’ insistence that Peter reads to them from The Book of Strange New Things, the name they have given the Bible, much as Mr Todd expects Tony Last to read Dickens to him in the Brazilian jungle.
Back on Earth, Beatrice deals with a series of difficult situations without Peter. Her coping mechanism made me smile ruefully. In the wake of a natural disaster on the other side of the world that wrecks the lives of many, she heads to the supermarket for comfort food, only to find that others had the same idea. The description of empty shelves, albeit only in the dessert aisles, chimed with the shortages currently happening in response to the Coronavirus pandemic. I guess it’s the animal instinct in the human beast that makes some of us abandon our sense of community and hoard away food to ensure our own survival. Selfishness is the blunter term for it. A later incident triggers more widespread shortages and, through Beatrice, Faber suggests a reason why shortages in supermarkets occur. In the current world situation, his theory rings true.
Faber layers tension over Peter and Beatrice’s separation. Beatrice assumes Grainger is a man, an assumption that Peter takes a while to correct, provoking anger and suspicion from his wife. Peter worries that Grainger will mistake his overtures of friendliness for something more intimate, the implication being that’s what women are like. Beatrice begins to switch off from her husband. There’s an implication that their relationship might not survive.
Early in the novel, through her communications to Peter, Beatrice comes across as self-pitying and a bit of a mood hoover. Peter, in contrast, is full of the challenge of his mission, pompous and preachy. I found each of them difficult to like, but Peter more so, with his irritation with Beatrice for not being cheerful or putting Peter’s mission above her own immediate concerns. Both characters are unapologetically judgemental across a spectrum of prejudices that takes in people on welfare, the overweight, race, class and those who don’t conform to society’s beauty standards. I’d say it was strange for a pair of born again Christians in ministry to be depicted this way, but personal experience tells me that Peter and Beatrice are true to type. I’ve known people like them. They were part of the reason I stopped being a Christian.
Faber writes Grainger, too, as reluctant to engage with Peter’s enthusiasm for his task. She is mystifyingly irritated by Peter’s inability to recall his arrival at the base and the information she shared with him about life there. She has no compassion for his experience, despite presumably having gone through it herself. Delivery of information seems to be a one time offer with her. As the novel progresses, Faber paints Grainger as a woman with issues, wounded by her life experiences and hiding away on a distant planet. She has this in common with the majority of the crew based on Oasis.
As I was reading, the UK entered a sort of lockdown period. We were all instructed to stay at home, only permitted to venture out into the world for a set of mostly specific reasons. My place of work closed a week previously. I have been working from home with only virtual electronic connections to my colleagues. It feels like a lifetime has passed. The days have passed more slowly, despite me being as busy as before. I understood the frustrations and anxieties felt by Peter and Beatrice. Theirs is the ultimate social distancing. I also understood the weirdness of their lives going on within their new normals, the sense of getting on with things because there isn’t any other option mixed with the desire for life to still be the old normal.
The disconnect between Earth and Oasis is rendered as an unwillingness on the part of the USIC crew to engage with the news of successive disasters on Earth that Peter attempts to share from Beatrice’s messages. The crew is made up of people who have fractured relationships in their pasts and who choose not to form intimate relationships on Oasis. They are there to be components in a machine.
I had questions over why they were there. The work they were doing to understand the geology of the planet and to apply soil erosion theories to develop technology that can harvest moisture in the atmosphere to generate electricity as well as keep the population hydrated seems to have purpose on Earth, too. And yet the technology isn’t shared with engineers on Earth. There are hints in the narrative that Oasis is intended to be a second chance once life on Earth has finally become unsustainable.
The motives of the Oasans were unclear as well. They were too amenable but also not at all amenable. Their desire for a minister to share with them God’s word was mystifying. Gradually, Peter is won over by their apparent gentleness and their openness to his preaching. He begins to assimilate, taking on their speech patterns, finding their alienness more familiar than his USIC colleagues’ humanity. Each time he returns to the USIC base, he misses his life among the Oasans. He begins to learn their language, which is rendered in the book in mysterious characters with no key. I found this incredibly frustrating, not being able to approximate the sounds being uttered or translate them into English.
As I read, I began to think about Peter and Beatrice’s separation being similar to one half of a couple being in a coma. Beatrice writes multiple times a day to her husband, like someone talking to a patient in a hospital bed, unable to truly know that their words are being understood, or even heard. Peter, even when he’s able to, is reluctant to communicate with Beatrice in response. There’s a disconnect between them. But Peter isn’t in a coma and, instead, the growing disconnect belies the couple’s projection of themselves as an indivisible unit.
Because the story is told entirely from Peter’s perspective, Faber’s revelations about what is going on with Beatrice make her seem less real than Peter. We get her letters and Peter’s reaction to them. Peter shuts down Beatrice’s attempts at honestly conveying her feelings. He is quick to discard his professed love for her, sidelining her needs for those of the Oasans. It seems that, for Peter, love is a measure of how well his egotistical needs are being met.
The abstract nature of love is the core of this novel. Do Peter and Beatrice really love each other, or are they codependent? Does Peter love any of his congregations, on Earth, at the USIC base or in the Oasan settlement? Does Beatrice love the people she works with or worships with? As Howard Jones once sang, what is love, anyway?
This is an odd book, but I enjoyed it.