The OF Blog: Michael Faber, The Book of Strange New Things

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Michael Faber, The Book of Strange New Things

"I was going to say something," he said.

"So say it," she said.

He was quiet, keeping his eyes on the road.  In the darkness of the city's outskirts, there was nothing to see except the tail-lights of other cars in the distance, the endless unfurling roll of tarmac, the giant utilitarian fixtures of the motorway.

"God may be disappointed in me for even thinking it," he said.

"Well," she sighed, "He knows already, so you may as well tell me."

He glanced at her face, to judge what mood she was in as she said this, but the top half of her head, including her eyes, was veiled in a shadow cast by the edge of the windscreen.  The bottom half of her face was lunar bright.  The sight of her cheek, lips and chin – so intimately familiar to him, so much a part of life as he had known it – made him feel a sharp grief at the thought of losing her. (p. 3)

Michael Faber's latest novel, The Book of Strange New Things, can be construed in several fashions.  It is a story of faith and its loss.  It is a tale of humanity wetting its bed.  It is an extended break-up letter.  It is a commentary on multinational capitalism and imperialist rhetoric.  It is each of these things and something more and less than the sum of its parts.

The Book of Strange New Things is set in a near-future Earth where technology has advanced enough that people can be transported light-years away.  Recently, contact has been made with sentient beings on a planet named Oasis (through a naming contest, of course).  After the usual mercenary crew has made the initial outposts, there comes the second of the three Exploration G's:  God.  The natives have become intrigued by the Bible introduced to them by a previous missionary and they request a replacement missionary to teach them more about this "book of strange new things."  It is an interesting take on the usual gold-god-glory trinity in that the native initiate much of this religious diffusion and it is one of several places where Faber takes great pains to avoid falling into the trap of viewing the Oasisian natives as infantile children.  Despite this, however, there are still some problematic elements when it comes to the interactions between the natives and the second missionary sent to them, Peter.

Peter and his wife Bea are an English missionary couple when the story commences.  Peter has volunteered to travel to Oasis at the behest of the UNIC corporation, even though this means he and Bea will be separated for decades, if not for the rest of their lives.  Peter's faith is shown in great detail, not only in the words he speaks or writes back to Bea in lengthy passages he jokingly calls epistles, but also in how he struggles to reconcile what he experiences with what he believes.  Having an earnestly devout person can be a difficult task, and Faber does an excellent job in developing Peter's character.  Yet oddly, Peter at times feels less like a person conflicted over his love for the Gospel and his love for his wife and more like a cipher, someone who exists merely to present an argument.  This is most prevalent in his interactions with the natives, as his thoughts are so bland, so devoid of humanity at times, that those passages feel more like a simulacrum speaking than an actual human being.

However, the novel mostly succeeds due to the strength of the letters Peter and Bea send to each other.  Bea's in particular are very effective, as they narrate a years-long decline in human civilization during the interim of Peter's voyage and his sojourn on Oasis.  Weather calamities, governmental collapses, riots, garbage piling high in the streets – these are the things that Bea experiences and their cumulative effect is to erode her faith in God.  The slowly unfolding nature of these horrors adds a nice contrast to what Peter witnesses on Oasis and his "seeing" his wife succumb to a loss of faith greatly damages his as well.  The final quarter of the book deals with this increasing self-doubt and it is here where Faber's effort to establish Peter as an earnest individual bears the greatest fruit.

Despite this, however, there were a few concerns.  Even though Faber did go to some length to avoid presenting the Peter-Oasisians as an analogue to earlier missionaries to non-European lands, there were a few times where it felt as though the same, tired comparisons (especially in regards to child-like faith) poked their ugly heads through the narrative.  However, these structural weaknesses are masked by the power of the Peter-Bea letters, as those achingly realistic epistles provided the driving force for the novel and made it a mostly enjoyable read.  

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