The Book of Strange New Things

UnknownImportantly, I am a Christian.

Also, this is a complicated book and my reactions are complicated, so I may not always be completely coherent….


A company called USIC has established a base – a colony in all but name – on a habitable planet they’ve called Oasis. It already has a sentient species living there. Peter, a Christian minister, gets the job to go and evangelise to these aliens. How is there even a question about whether this is science fiction?

The novel has a straightforward structure, with one intriguing aspect: the ‘title’ of each chapter is the last line, or sentence, of the chapter. This is… weird, and adds some remarkable suspense, and it means each chapter feels circular; it ends up where it began. I’m not sure whether this will turn out to have some greater significance than I currently perceive over the course of the novel.

Now, spoilers…

Notes at roughly the halfway point:

As I rather expected, Bea is pregnant. When she was so keen to have sex on the way to the airport, it just seemed like the obvious reason. And of course, it’s also an obvious thing to do to Peter while he is so very distant.

I can’t quite get a grip on Bea. This isn’t entirely surprising, since the reader mostly experiences her through Peter’s memories, and through her letters. I think she’s meant to be appropriately complex: a faithful Christian woman, a dedicated nurse, a wonderfully supportive wife. A woman understandably struggling with her husband’s prolonged absence, sending letters of fear and worry to a man who can’t possibly help her. And, through the lens of Peter, pretty much an angel, having heavily contributed to rescuing him from his drug-addled life and having brought him to Christ. I am conflicted: part of me wants to be annoyed at Faber making her out to be so fearful, while at the same time being annoyed that Faber makes her so good. I suspect this means that she’s quite a real character. (Also, Beatrice: Dante’s Beatrice?)

Peter… well. The name is significant, of course; the man who denied Christ and then became ‘the rock’ on which the church would be established; the spiritual ancestor of all Popes, in the Roman Catholic doctrine. On which: I don’t think his particular brand of Protestantism is ever identified. There’s a line at some point that suggests he’s not Baptist (because someone else is), nor ‘a strict Pentecostal’ – but he’s not tied down, otherwise. He is an evangelical, in the sense that he believes in and uses the Bible (the Book of Strange New Things) as the basis of his faith and – obviously, since he’s gone to be a missionary to an alien people – he believes in spreading this good news. Although he does have an issue with some of Paul’s letters. This non-denominational aspect is clever, since he’s open to connections with a wide number of readers and is less likely to turn off those who have had a bad experience with a particular denomination. And then there’s his background. The years of living on the streets, drinking and using drugs, and then falling in love with a nurse and being converted and becoming a preacher. Again, I am conflicted here. This is absolutely a real and true scenario and completely believable. And it definitely means that Peter has ins with others on Oasis that a ‘I grew up Christian’ minister might not have. On the other hand, it is a bit of a cliché for the preacher to have quite such a… yeh ok, I was going to say ‘road to Damascus’ story, for which reason I just have to get over those issues. Faber can absolutely use Christian parallels in telling his story.

The presentation of Christianity has, so far, been an honest one. Peter and Bea are real people; life is not perfect, and they don’t pretend it is. They are genuinely motivated by their faith in trying to reach people – not just to evangelise but to make lives better. They are honest about the people in their church, and the world. They pray unselfconsciously. They don’t try to understand or explain everything in the world, but rely on God as the author and ultimate arbiter. Finally I have one Protestant in space – and a female Protestant, too, although she’s still on earth.

And then there’s the aliens. I am intrigued by the fact that although they are humanoid, so far Faber is making little attempt at humanising them; their faces are inscrutable, in that Peter can’t even figure out how their faces work; they don’t seem to have different tones in their voices; it’s not even clear whether there’s genders or how they reproduce. Peter attempts to know them, and so far is having little success. This is amongst the more honest approaches to alien contact that I’ve read. I love that although they know some English, they can’t say ‘s’ or ‘t’ or ‘ch’ – instead replacing the sound with sounds from their own language, and that these sounds are represented with alien symbols in the novel. These symbols, as much as the fact that hello, these are aliens, amuse me because this is definitely a science fiction novel… but I found the book in the LITERATURE section of a (slightly snobby) bookshop. I am liking the aliens, and I am completely intrigued, while at the same time fearful as I remember The Sparrow. I’m also suspicious about what’s going on with their (lack of) technology, and with the medicines being provided by USIC. I do like that not all of the Oasans, as Peter calls them, have become or want to become Christians.

Meanwhile, planet Earth appears to be destroying itself. An earthquake in England, a cyclone hitting North Korea, the Maldives wiped out by a tsunami…. This is a really odd part of the narrative so far, whose only purpose appears to be making Peter agonise for Bea and feel even more separated from her. Is there going to be an attempt at an exodus (oh, ha ha) to Oasis as Earth falls apart?

Now I am finished. And I am… dazed. Bemused. In the language of surveys, somewhat dissatisfied.

About the three-quarters mark, I realised that the catastrophes back on Earth were no new thing. Peter has been telling the reader all the way through that he doesn’t really pay attention to the news, that it’s Bea who is the sharp-eyed one and the one who asks the hard questions. And the news she relates to Peter now must be more of what’s been going on for a while; it’s just that Peter has never paid attention to it before. In fact, he doesn’t really pay attention to it now, except insofar as it’s distressing Bea and feels alien to his understanding of existence.

I can’t say I was surprised that Faber went the route of having Peter and Bea’s relationship (apparently) collapse. And as with Bea in general, I can’t figure out whether this is a cheap move to get emotional kicks or a realistic and inexorable consequence of the (literal and metaphorical) distance between the two. I wonder if this is a case where two things can be true simultaneously. It was frustrating to only get to Bea via Peter; her letters to him, which are constrained, limited; plus his reaction to and memories of her. And he is gradually losing the ability to remember her clearly. Again, I can’t quite figure out my reaction to this: is it just another example of ‘the women men don’t see,’ with the focus being on the poor white boy whose life is going all pear-shaped – well, one part of it anyway – or a clever look at issues to do with isolation and distance? I think it does do the latter… but I think it definitely has the former too, not least because it is such an overdone staple of literature. This is compounded, though, in that it could really only be a man: there are so few female ministers to this day, after all, and not all Protestant denominations allow them, thus taking away from the … well, not quite universality, since my whole point here is that it’s gender-specific, but see my point earlier about the generality of Peter’s Christianity. (This wouldn’t have prevented it from being a non-white man, of course.)

I was saddened by Bea losing her faith because of the issues around her. I do understand, and of course it happens all the time, and perhaps it’s easier to write that realistically/believably for a not-necessarily-religious audience than trying to write the ‘and she kept her faith despite the despair’ story, which ALSO happens a lot and could be realistic/believable. Actually though the most difficult part about this was Peter’s reactions. Because while he was, of course, saying true things about the way God views the world, and those words delivered in person and in context could absolutely be viable parts of a conversation – on paper they are the sententious drivel that makes it embarrassing to be Christian. And of course this is meant to indicate Peter’s distance from his wife, but it was still an acute reminder of how parts of the Western world view Christianity.

I am intrigued and a little frustrated that the aliens remained basically obtuse and unknowable to the reader. I think we’re meant to understand that Peter understands them more deeply, but the reader is treated like just another member of USIC; an alien in this land. We are on the outside. Nowhere is this more obvious than in Peter’s farewell speech, which is rendered almost completely in the Oasan script. I was amazed by this choice. I think it can genuinely be called ambitious.

I grew to like Peter less and less over the course of the story. He’s self-involved. He’s blind to much of Bea’s suffering and to how his stories will sound to her. There is redemption, of a sort, I guess, in his decision to go home once it’s clear to him just how much she’s suffering personally, physically, emotionally, mentally – but it’s also because now he’s suffering, at being apart from her. Also, the cat died. How is having a cat die a legitimate catalyst when all of the other stuff has not been?

Overall I am content with the presentation of Christianity. There are bits that I disagree with – Peter’s attitude towards Paul, for instance, and the wearisome reliance on the King James version (other translations are mentioned but the King James is praised for its lyricism; personally I prefer accuracy and being able to understand a text over whether it sounds like centuries-old poetry, and VERY FEW churches actually use the King James Bible these days so that’s a mark against Faber’s authenticity). But the notion of faith isn’t seriously challenged – it’s not shown to be a mark of weakness or evil, for example. Peter and Bea’s struggles are real ones, and neither the decision to abandon God nor the decision to be faithful is privileged. It’s not easy for Peter to stay with God; even through her letters it’s clear that abandoning God has not been an easy decision for Bea.

Things that frustrated me: the lack of resolution overall. What is Oasis meant to be for? Someone does suggest that it will be populated by philanthropic billionaires, but that doesn’t really answer my questions. And what is USIC? And is there something about the Oasans, or the air or environment, that makes most people more docile? I feel that this is insinuated, especially in Peter, but again never resolved. Neither is the question about the fate of Kurtzburg or Tartaglione, and the reasons behind their changes. I know, novels don’t have to answer all my questions, and of course sometimes there should be mystery, and perhaps if this were all spelled out I would be impatient with the answers. But all of them? Just hanging? This is not even to mention the biggest issue – does Peter go home, does he find Bea – but this, although frustrating, is a frustration I am accustomed to. It reminds me a lot of the ending of The Dispossessed.

I think this is an intriguing book. I think it’s a well-written book – for nearly 600 pages it was a remarkably easy read. If I had read it before March, would I have put it on my Hugo ballot? Perhaps. Is this a ‘work of genius’ (David Benioff)? A “wildly original tale of adventure, faith, and the ties that might hold two people together”? Umm… I don’t think so. Well, yes to the bit from “tale of.” But genius? Nah. Wildly original? Nah. Cleverly – impressively cleverly – put together, sure. Intriguing, totally. But there are other missionary stories out there – only a few science fictional ones, to be sure – and other stories of alien contact and relationships. Perhaps from this perspective no original tale is possible; perhaps I am too harsh. Oh well. At any rate, I do not regret having read it, and look forward to talking to other people – both Christian and not – about it.

2 responses

  1. I read this last year when it came out. I remember having similar a similar reaction to Peter’s relationship with Bea. I know this distance builds tension and drives the narrative, but I couldn’t help thinking about what the book could have been, and the directions Faber could have taken, had Bea gone with Peter. But then I learned after reading the novel that Faber had recently lost his wife — possibly even during the writing of the novel, I can’t recall at this point. So I see Peter’s “journey” as perhaps more of a cathartic experience for Faber himself. I’m not sure. It’s quite multifaceted, and overall I enjoyed it.

    1. Huh. An interesting moment of the author’s experience possibly affecting the novel…

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