The Book of Strange New Things by Michael Faber has left my head full of strange new ideas. Exactly what I want from a book that took me nearly a week to read.
Several days after finishing reading this story, I’m still not sure if I liked it or not, but I cannot stop thinking about the main characters, their world and what is going to happen to them in the future. The story is science fiction, set in a completely believable alternate reality.
The story follows Peter, an English missionary who takes a job with a mysterious conglomeration who send him for five years to a distant planet to teach the occupants of the planet about the Bible, which the planet’s occupants call ‘The Book of Strange New Things’.
Peter’s wife Bea was not chosen to go on USIC’s mission to Oasis. When they met, Peter was a drug-addict recovering in hospital after an accident and Bea, his nurse. With Bea’s assistance, Peter turned his life around and eventually became the Pastor of their church. He and Bea worked together to help the poor and needy in practical ways, although Bea also continued working as a nurse. Peter recognises how much he needs Bea by his side, but chose to go to Oasis alone anyway.
Once Peter arrives on Oasis, (the planet was named by a girl from America in a competition)after a month-long journey which he slept through, Peter is immediately charmed by the alien surroundings. Days and nights on Oasis last for about three earth-days, the rain dances around the sky and tastes of honey-dew, and the ground is a never-ending stretch of flat, dark brown dirt. The locals, who Peter calls ‘Oasans,’ supply the humans living there with foodstuff they grow.
The humans living on Oasis are similar in that they have few emotional ties to others, either on Oasis or on Earth, are passionate about their work and are reasonably easy-going. They live in a man-made, climate-controlled space next to their airport.
The Oasans are so strange looking to Peter that he is initially unable to tell them apart. He describes the faces of the Oasans, (or what he thinks are their faces) as looking like two unborn foetuses fused together. Over time he gets to know some of the Oasans individually and learns to distinguish them by the colours of their robes and their voices. The Oasans have learned to speak English from a human linguist and have previously learned about the Bible from another Pastor sent by USIC. The Oasans are desperate to learn more from the Bible and have named themselves ‘Jesus Lover One’ and ‘Jesus Lover Two’ etc, although not all of the Oasans are ‘Jesus lovers’.
Peter is able to communicate with Bea on a device called the Shoot which sends letters, but not photos. There is no internet access either, news only comes via letters or a selection of magazines which appear to have been censored. From the very beginning Peter’s letters to Bea are full of the joy he feels from the opportunity to teach Oasans who welcome him with open arms and who are happy and greedy to learn from him.
Bea’s letters to Peter continue to haunt me. She realised she was pregnant not long after Peter left Earth, but Peter was so full of his own experiences that Bea’s news barely registered with him. Bea’s news about what is happening on Earth became more and more difficult to read, as she tells him about terrible natural disasters to do with climate-change and wars and terror and a divide between the rich and the poor which became impossible to overcome. I found these events terribly sad to read about and became more and more frustrated with Peter’s lack of empathy or even acknowledgement of what was happening to Bea and Earth.
The Book of Strange New Things isn’t my usual type of read, but even though the book left me feeling sad and wondering about our future, I’m glad I read this.