How far would you go on faith? Peter Leigh, the protagonist of Michel Faber’s new novel, will go anywhere God asks. A Christian missionary, Peter has been hired by a company called USIC to serve as minister to the natives on a settlement known as C-2 or the Oasis. The Oasis is on “another world” a few galaxies away. Peter has little information about the planet or its inhabitants, but trusts it’s all part of “God’s plan.”
Faber has gone the sci-fi route before, with his 2001 debut novel Under the Skin, about predatory aliens on earth, now a film with Scarlett Johansson. The Book of Strange New Things offers none of that snark or spark. Written over the course of a decade, the novel suffers from sprawl in a way his also long but deliciously racy 2002 novel The Crimson Petal and the White does not. Here Faber doggedly explores religious faith, romantic faith, earth on the brink of apocalypse and a world in which, as Peter observes, “We are the aliens.”
After making love to his wife Bea desperately rather than tenderly his last night on earth, Peter finds himself at the USIC station on bare, blasted C-2. The air has a spectral quality. “It lapped against his cheeks, tickled his ears, flowed over his lips and hands. It penetrated his clothing, breathing into the collar of his shirt…”
The USIC team helps Peter acclimate, especially Grainger, an efficient if brittle woman deputized to shuttle him to the Oasan settlement. Her exchanges with Peter provide opportunities for back story.
The Oasans dress in bright-colored hooded robes and conveniently enough, already speak a sort of English, although their mouths lack the palate to enunciate clearly. If indeed they have mouths. They have “nothing like a face. Instead, it was a massive whitish-pink walnut kernel.” No matter, the Oasans already love Jesus, so much so, this is what they call themselves. Jesus Lover One, Jesus Lover Five and others welcome Peter, making him “King of Freaktown,” as Grainger puts it.
It’s good news for USIC, which maintains an uneasy but symbiotic relationship with the locals. The Oasans want Jesus and need the drugs USIC provides. The USIC team needs the food the Oasans grow and process, all of which has a single origin, white flower. Like mana in the Old Testament, white flower, C-2’s local crop, can assume different flavors and textures, from raisin bread to “the best pastrami you ever had in your life.”
Pastami aside, there are ominous hints throughout. Peter’s background isn’t the seminary but “the University of Hard Drinking and Drug Abuse.” His Oasan predecessor, Kurtzberg “ah … disappeared,” a nod to the tantalizing possibility we’re entering a deep space Heart of Darkness. The hints are rarely realized, though. The main tension comes as Peter struggles to communicate with his wife Bea via the Shoot, an intergalactic email system.
From the home front, Bea relates a torrent of horror. The Maldives are wiped out by a tsunami. Goods and services vanish around London. Madagascar erupts in rioting. From the USIC station, Peter responds, “All these disasters … are just so alien to my life here. They don’t feel real. … And I very quickly reach a point where I think ‘If she tells me about one more disaster my brain will seize up.’ Of course I’m horrified by this failure of compassion, but the more I strain to overcome it the worse it becomes.”
With his marriage and native planet deteriorating, Peter’s love and faith are sorely tested. It’s easier to preach to the faithful Jesus Lovers from the Book of Strange New Things, aka the Bible, and be “spared the melodrama that made things so complicated when you dealt with other humans.”
Oh, sure, blame the humans. The real issue is author’s choice to write with a flat, guileless prose echoing his protagonist. Faber’s created a jewelry box of potential but seems as incurious about exploring it as Peter himself. The Book of Strange New Things does not fulfill its promise, but the questions Faber poses — what is Christian? what is human? — insinuate like the air on C-2.
Ellen Kanner is a writer in Miami.