The Book of Strange New Things, by Michael Faber
by Robert A. Parker
This 2014 work is a strange novel, and a fascinating one. It offers a challenge to one’s imagination and a challenge to one’s faith. It is the story of a Christian pastor, Peter Leigh, and his religious wife, Bea. They meet in a hospital, after he was injured in a fall while trying to escape after a robbery. She is his nurse. Love develops between them, as she motivates him to forego his criminal past and turn to religion, just as she had. And theirs becomes a love that will sustain them throughout this book.
But their religious faith raises a major question. For it is challenged by the separate worlds they will encounter, separate worlds that they choose together, certain that their love will survive their separation and their mutual belief that Peter will succeed in bringing the word of God to a distant land.
Indeed, to a far distant land, to the planet Oasis, in a galaxy far away. This planet is being explored and cultivated by an enigmatic corporation called USIC. And here is where author Faber challenges one’s imagination. For while this is serious fiction, it is also science fiction. Peter encounters a world of endless vistas without vegetation, with long days and nights, with unique rain squalls, and with an unusual white flower that is converted by the mysterious, robed Oasans, into food and materials.
Peter is sent to this world by USIC to replace a former missionary. He is to bring the message of Christ to the local population that is already fervently Christian. These Oasans welcome Peter and clamor for more religious instruction. His major resource is the King James Bible, which they call, in their language, The Book of Strange New Things.
The Oasans are looked down upon by the employees of the base settlement that has been established on this distant planet by USIC. They have been told to give Peter anything he needs, because this will further their relationship with the Oasans who provide their food. But while they assist him, they do not take to this new resident who does not share their practical view of this new planet. Only one does, his guide, a woman pharmacist, Alex Grainger. But while an emotional charge develops between the two, they both are careful to avoid deeper emotional ties.
For much of the novel, Peter and his distant wife Bea share messages of mutual support regarding both their love and the importance of Peter’s spiritual mission. But then reality enters, influencing them both. Back on earth, natural disasters occur and society begins to break down. Bea reports these, and slowly we realize they are challenging her faith in God. She also feels deserted by Peter, as she attempts to survive in a disintegrating world over which neither she nor anyone on earth has control.
Peter is troubled by the situation back home and its effect on her, but is more focused on his own situation, his own commitment to his mission with the mysterious Oasans and their need for spiritual support. Gradually, we realize the fervent and sincere faith of this couple is being challenged, both on earth and on this distant planet, and one wonders whether their mutual faith will survive. Where, in other words is this work of fiction headed? In fact, I began to speculate if the positive reception of this work was a reflection of a literary world that seldom relates to religious themes.
One of the achievements of this novel is the vividness of the confrontation between two civilizations, as experienced by Peter. He and the Oasans take a different approach to their faith. They are more accepting of faith; he is more challenged by it. He has also not experienced a faith like theirs, a faith so undemanding, so compatible with their spiritual needs. Nor has he met beings like them, beings with no recognizable characteristics, not even a recognizable face. He ends up identifying them based on the slightly different colors of the robes they wear. Another achievement is the unity with which Peter and Bea act at the beginning of the novel, and then their separate concerns as the reality on earth changes her life and the reality he confronts on Oasis distracts him from the problems she is facing back home.
The spiritual evolution of this novel concerns, initially, the adversity back on earth. These catastrophic events suggest that the end of the world is coming. The characters do not conclude this, but the author raises the suggestion in a passing paragraph shortly after I wondered about this possibility myself. But unasked is whether the end of the world also means the end of this distant galaxy, and all human life there as well. Or is this is distant civilization being cultivated by USIC to become a haven from earth’s destruction? That is, are the native Oasans to perish along with the humans among them? This is a religious/spiritual issues that the novel does not raise.
Indeed, there are no answers here to the issue of faith. Faber even suggests the Oasans mistakenly believe in Christ because He does not die, and think belief in Him will also save them from death. In a sense, the author comes up with a religious conclusion that has it both ways. There is one environment in which religious faith continues, and one environment in which it does not. My problem is that I was not convinced by its explanation of why in one environment it does not: “The holy book…had one cruel flaw: it was not very good at offering encouragement or hope to those who weren’t religious. ‘With God nothing shall be impossible,’ proclaimed Luke, and that message…now turned itself over like a dying insect, and became ‘Without God, everything shall be impossible.’ What use was that?”
The survival of faith depends on the reality men face? Is that truly an argument against faith? Or is it an argument reflecting the weakness of man? Reflecting a certain despair. Where is man’s perseverance? Yes, one can pray in such circumstances, but why the insistence that God must respond—or one cannot believe in Him?
This work certainly make me interested in reading more of Faber. Because of the credibility of his strange world, the reality of his characters, and his fearless use of a popular genre. I only wish he had given more answers here. For example, to the fate of Peter and Bea. Or is this effort he spent ten years on also setting the stage for a sequel? (November, 2016)