Truth be told, I’ve actually read several books in between my last review and this one, but somehow a review just never gelled for those other books. First, there was Charles Grant’s Symphony, the first in a tetralogy in which one book each is dedicated to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. While I have a weird little anecdote about this novel’s cover design in relation to a dream I had in high school (several years before the book was published), I’ll spare you that and just say that the first volume in the series was a massive letdown, and I likely won’t be reading the rest of them. I have a general rule against reviewing anything that I would rate less than a C- because I hate being mean to writers, knowing as I do exactly how hard it is to write a novel—any novel—much less a good one. And let’s say this book just missed the mark of being review-worthy.
Then there was Barbara Kingsolver’s colossal ode to Africa The Poisonwood Bible, about the mostly all-female Price clan, headed by the firebrand Southern preacher Nathan Price, and their adventures as missionaries in the Belgian Congo against the backdrop of the Congo Crisis of the early 1960s. Here I had the opposite problem: the book was certainly worthy of a review, but I felt that any legitimate criticisms that could be leveled at it would require someone with a far more extensive and nuanced understanding of African history and culture than I happen to possess. Next I tackled the Seventh Annual Edition of Gardner Dozois’ highly regarded anthology series The Year’s Best Science Fiction. The failure here for me was in the prodigious diversity of ideas which threatened to overwhelm me (a common issue I have with good science fiction anthologies), and I will need to read it again to properly review it. Finally, I worked William Styron’s short but exemplary meditation on his own clinical depression, Darkness Visible, into my reading schedule, a text that feels holy to those of us who have suffered from the same affliction at some point in our lives, and therefore to review it was, for me, something akin to sacrilege.
Little did I know, reading all of these books was essentially laying the groundwork for reviewing a novel more in my critical wheelhouse: The Book of Strange New Things by Dutch/British author Michel Faber, a book that shares some territory with Mary Doria Russell’s multi-award-winning The Sparrow, in that both are about an idealistic Christian missionary traveling to an alien world to bring the Gospel to the natives, only to face a series of unexpected challenges upon arrival. But that’s pretty much where the similarities end. Whereas The Sparrow‘s central protagonist is a conservative Jesuit priest from Puerto Rico, that of The Book of Strange New Things is a liberal Protestant minister from Britain. And whereas Russell’s novel tackles the politics of sex and the emotional impact of rape, Faber’s is at heart a love story. And now I promise to stop with the comparisons and just focus on the volume credited in the headline.
From the outset Faber takes pains to establish the depth and vigor of the relationship between Peter and Beatrice Leigh, which is a good thing because he wastes little time in getting the pastor off to the planet Oasis, where USIC (the acronym is never explained, adding to the mega-corp’s highly mysterious nature throughout the story) has established a . . . colony? Base? Neither of these feel quite accurate in describing the setup USIC has created on the planet, where a handful of handpicked humans toil away in the hardscrabble environment of a world that is, impossibly, both wet and dry at the same time, incredibly humid and yet almost desert-like in its sparsity of life and geological features. A world where the nigh incessant rain comes down in rhythmic spirals. The one intelligent species here are humanoid in form, but their faces are maddeningly unfamiliar, devoid of anything even remotely face-like.
When Peter arrives, he finds several facets of this new place both unsettling and fascinating. For one thing, the USIC habitat is engineered to keep its workers satisfied and incurious about everything outside of their jobs, including what’s going on back on Earth. Or rather, especially what’s going on back on Earth. This is problematic for Peter, who initially tries to keep his promise to communicate regularly with Bea via the Shoot (basically an interplanetary email device that allows for near instantaneous communication between Earth and Oasis) but soon his work with the all too amenable Oasans—which includes mastering their bizarre, nearly impervious form of speech and helping them build a proper church in their otherwise insular and conformist community—causes him to slack off on his transmissions. Naturally, being millions of miles away both physically and mentally, Peter begins to grow apart from his wife, who is dealing with some major issues of her own back home, where civilization has fallen into complete chaos as environmental disasters caused by severe climate change have begun to take their toll. But these problems become almost abstract to Peter as he endeavors to understand what motivates the Oasans, not to mention what happened to his predecessor, the original pastor who inspired the natives to take up Christianity so passionately, and who went missing before Peter’s arrival.
Even as Peter and Bea grow apart, Peter finds himself growing closer to Grainger, the colony’s pharmacist, who is battling depression and guilt and wants to go home to visit her estranged father. Soon he develops feelings for her that further threaten his marriage, while on the tumultuous Earth, Bea has seemingly lost her faith in God. Will Peter and Bea’s love survive these setbacks? Could any marriage endure these immense psychic and spatial distances, or these ever-multiplying forms and levels of alienation? This is the central question the book asks, and it is largely left to the reader whether the question is satisfactorily answered or not. Meanwhile, there is a pastoral quality to The Book of Strange New Things, an ease and lightness in its unfolding which expertly belies the gloom gathering just off the horizon. Like the Oasans’ ovoid-bricked homes and the sterile USIC compound, the story itself is meticulously constructed to be nonthreatening, or rather to appear so. But danger lurks in unexpected places, like those challenges to love and faith that often strike us obliquely, out of the blue.
Perhaps the greatest achievement of the novel is its restraint. Faber could easily have taken this in a dozen more jarring, gruesome or sensational directions. He could have made it far more confrontational to the those who put their faith in God—or science for that matter—to save us from ourselves. Instead, what he gives us is a soft sell of the very things he seems to castigate, sort of an anti-satire, a thing that comes across ultimately as fresh and original even as it polishes its familiar tropes to a glittering shine, and that is borderline miraculous. He even leaves off in a way that invites a sequel, but if one never materializes the novel will remain nothing less than a holistic and accomplished piece, a fully realized work of science fiction that should be read widely.