I just read The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber. It’s one of the most talked about “literary science fiction” books of 2014, by the acclaimed author who claims it will be his last. This book made so many “best of” lists that it was quite impossible not to read it. Happily, I had glanced at enough non-gaga reviews to expect the emphasis on the “literary” as opposed to the “sf”.
So I knew I wouldn’t be bowled over by the science fiction part of this book. But I didn’t expect to feel so dissatisfied after wading through 600 pages of… well… let us be fair. The book is well-written and a page-turner, despite the absence of ‘action’ of any sort. One keeps expecting things to happen, even when they don’t. At its best, the book is a moving testament to the trauma and stress that distance puts on even the most loving relationship.
‘The Book of Strange New Things’ referred to in the title is the Bible. Peter is a missionary with a difference – he is selected to minister to a bunch of aliens on Oasis, a planet far, far away reached via “Jump” on a spaceship. Left behind on Earth is Peter’s beloved wife Beatrice.
The situation is all very sf, you might think, but it’s not. Everything is very dull – the ship, the crew, the USIC headquarters on Oasis, even the planet itself is unutterably dull and lacking in diversity of any sort. We are only given one species of plant (whiteflower), one type of vermin, some insects, and one intelligent species who want Peter to bring them the word of God.
The mind boggles at the dreariness. Only the atmosphere of Oasis, thick and warm and tending to sneak inside your clothes, has any character. The land is flat, there are no trees, it rains now and then. That’s it. Mother Earth, I miss you already.
Then there’s Peter himself, 33 years old, bigoted and judgmental. I don’t know if the author intends to portray him as such, or whether it is unintentional. Peter is portrayed as a decent, good human being, a true believer in Christ, who wants only to bring the light of Christianity to the aliens of Oasis. However, he is so full of himself and so prejudiced against his fellow humans, that he is difficult to like and be with.
Unfortunately, since the book is solely from Peter’s POV, we have to spend 600 pages with him – except for the long, tragedy-filled letters from his wife. All of Peter’s compassion seems to be for the aliens he is ministering. He looks down on the men and women of USIC, the company that brought him to Oasis. Women are referred to as ‘butch’, men as ‘charmless creeps’ or ‘construction workers’.
The worst bit of racism is reserved for Flores, a woman from El Salvador who works as a nurse at USIC, and whom Peter refers to more than once as “chimpanzee-like”.
“She was four foot ten, tops, and her head looked shrunken. Whatever genetic code had produced her was very different from the one that has produced him. She was almost as alien-looking as the Oasens.”
Is it only me? Are we supposed to dislike Peter? Because I sure as heck dislike him. No two humans are identical, but we do share 99.5% biochemical similarity. Whereas the Oases are – duh – alien.
There’s more. Peter muses how much physical diversity there is in Western Europeans so they are easy to describe and distinguish. Whereas, for example, Chinese must have to go into “nuances” to distinguish each other because they all have dark eyes and black hair. (This is sheer nonsense, of course.)
Anyway, the main drama seems to be between Peter and his wife Beatrice, whom he is forced to leave behind on Earth in order to take up his very special assignment. Peter and Beatrice write letters to each other through the “Shoot”, a kind of text-only email. Gradually, communication deteriorates. Bea’s letters are filled with tragedy and disaster, so much so that it becomes almost comical. I could have swallowed a couple of new wars and maybe one or two natural disasters, but it seems funny the way the whole world starts going to hell as soon as Peter leaves it. As if his presence was sort of holding it together.
Peter balks at all this tragedy and takes refuge in the settlement of his simple, holy aliens. He starts going ‘native’ to quite a strange extent. The aliens tend to pass waste wherever they are, right in the middle of a conversation. I should add that their waste appears to crumble to dust and must be non-toxic. Peter also starts peeing right where he is, in the middle of conversations with them.
I don’t know about you folks, but no matter which planet I find myself on, I’m going to want to build a bathroom. Or dig a hole in the ground. Or find a place in the woods. Or whatever.
Quite apart from Peter’s unlikable character is the sheer illogic of some of the things described in the book. For instance, the aliens supply the humans on Oasis with food and spices in return for medicines. Human medicines, folks. Painkillers, antibiotic, insulin – that kind of thing. Why would this stuff work on alien biology (biology that the humans have not even studied!)? Why would it not poison the poor aliens instead?
The ending of the book is abrupt. I won’t give it away, except to say that it will bring a sense of relief that it’s over. The Book of Strange New Things is finished, and now I can go read some Terry Pratchett.
I read his “Under The Skin” this year, also lit-sf, also downbeat in protagonist and style and with the sf elements downplayed for a large part. Not even close to 600 pages though, which helps.
I think UTS works because Faber is developing a very clear metaphor, one that is a bit of a shocker when it comes clear and a bit of a stomach-turner when we’re fully exposed to it. As for TBoSNT, it’s hard to know exactly what he might be aiming for based on your description here, so if *you* can’t say after reading it… that’s pretty telling.
Andrew, the most benign and simple explanation I can think of is that this book is a veiled criticism of colonial Christianity. But if so, it is not obvious. I might be reading too much into it.
I don’t think you are, but (again, I’ve not read it) the weird flat, empty quality to the colony being injected with Peter’s philosophy and personality doesn’t have much correlation with the distinctive cultures Christianity has aggressively encountered, historically, at least not as far as I can imagine. I don’t even think the argument could be made that colonialist cultures viewed those they trampled on as a vacuum to be filled, so I’m not sure what the point would be in this deliberately bland environment. The shitting-where-they-stand detail does have a bit of the wrong-headed perception of “others” as “animals” about it, though — so the fact that this is presented as actual behaviour in the story is kind of interesting, if that’s what he’s aiming at.
Well, if you have the time and inclination to read the book, I’ll be interested to hear what you think of it…My concern is also whether the racist views expressed by Peter are only the MC’s views, or whether they are shared by the author. I just don’t know.
Hmm. Oddly, this book is one that wasn’t on my radar at all. Judging from your review, it seems like I’m not missing much…
I actually think readers in general would benefit from more thoughtful and analytical reviews of such books, which make bestseller lists and leave everyone gushing praise, without ‘seeing’ the issues involved. So if you do read it, leave an honest review on goodreads or amazon.
A ‘best seller’ you say? … ‘literary science fiction’ you say? .. I’ll pass! 🙂 … and what the hell is ‘literary’ SF anyway? … sounds like a lot of rather self-obsessed navel-gazing to me.
🙂 I do love a rollicking good adventure myself, esply when peopled with diverse characters. I like so-called “literary sf” when it’s well done. And this book…is not. Try reading “Spin” by Robert Charles Wilson – that is just fantastic!