Imagine you are separated from the person you love most by an insurmountable distance. Your life, however strange and disorienting, is filled with possibilities and hope, while your love faces only devastation and death. Your faith grows stronger, while she has lost hers. What do you do?
This dilemma is at the crux of Michel Faber’s extraordinary novel, The Book of Strange New Things, where sometime in a not-so-distant future, Peter, a devoted pastor and former homeless drug addict, travels to a distant planet as a missionary. Peter leaves behind his wife, Beatrice, as Earth is devastated by natural disasters, economic collapse and war—the calamities of our world occurring to an exponential degree.
Though the setting is science fiction, Faber’s novel is literary in the best sense. It is compelling, wondrous and strange as we join Peter for his journey to Oasis, where he has been recruited by USIC, the corporation that is colonizing the planet, to minister to the natives who mysteriously are eager to know the Bible. The Oasans are small, hooded beings that embody a sense of otherness: they have no discernable mouth, nose or eyes; their faces resemble a “massive whitish-pink walnut shell” or “a placenta with two fetuses—maybe three-month-old twins, hairless and blind—nestled head to head, knee to knee.” As we are repulsed, Peter, a better man it seems, is eager to begin his mission.
Unable to read their expressions, he finds their fervor to learn about God inscrutable, prompting him to move into their community, which is dismissively called Freaktown by the USIC staff. Faber masterfully evokes Peter’s mental and sensory experience as he lives with these ego-less people outside in an atmosphere where—“the air immediately ran up the sleeves of his shirt, licked his eyelids and ears, dampened his chest.” Working with the Oasans, harvesting and building a church, Peter comes to admire how they exist only in the present. He slowly learns their language, which with its absence of words for human-like emotions reflects their utter lack of self-absorption.
As Peter struggles to understand his purpose on Oasis, many questions accumulate. Why did USIC spend millions to bring him here? What are the corporation’s real intentions with the planet? Why is the oddball staff so complacent? Are the natives as innocuous as they seem? And most troubling of all, what happened to the previous pastor and the linguist who had disappeared without a trace? (The staff jokes that the freaks of Freaktown ate them.) Indeed, though the threat of evil stirs in the humid air, it is ultimately not an outside malevolent force that provokes Peter’s deepest fears. It is the very human concerns of disconnection, doubt and loss.
Eventually, living with the Oasans, Peter experiences significant physical and psychological changes, conveyed in subtle and persuasive ways. As he adopts their native habits, he becomes emaciated and dangerously sunburnt; he forgets what his wife looks like and loses tolerance for what he sees as “the complicated trivia of human intercourse.”
Peter also finds it increasingly difficult to respond to Beatrice’s despondent emails that chronicle the misery of her life back home. Shaken by her husband’s lack of support, she grows to resent that while Earth is dying, he has a cushy job a billion miles away preaching to a docile congregation who hang on his every word. And like her, we can’t help wondering whether Peter shouldn’t be back on Earth alleviating the suffering of his wife and church, instead of being with these faceless aliens. Christ came to our world; shouldn’t that be a priority?
Faber’s artistry puts a mirror up to our own biases and shortcomings by confronting problems of faith without any hint of irony or cynicism. Whether his narrator is invoking a letter of Paul to reassure his wife or discussing the purpose of prayer with a colleague, Faber weaves in practical theological questions that never feel preachy or affected. When his USIC driver questions whether the Oasans, who seem incapable of sin, need Christianity, Peter’s responds with characteristic vigor:
Christianity isn’t just about being forgiven. It’s about living a fulfilled and joyous life. The thing is, being a Christian is an enormous buzz: that’s what a lot of people don’t understand. It’s deep satisfaction. It’s waking up in the morning filled with excitement about every minute that’s ahead of you.
Rallying to support his wife, Peter encourages her to turn to God, as they had done together during so many crises in the past. But it’s too late; she has lost too much and is beyond consolation. She writes, “We need a certain proportion of things to be O.K. in order to be able to cope with other things going wrong. Whether it’s a human body or Christian endeavor or life in general, we can’t keep it going if too much of what we need is taken away from us.”
Beatrice tells him there is no God, and Peter realizes that for all the sustenance the Bible has provided him, it has a 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. That message, which Peter had always thought was the most joyously positive reassurance you could wish for, now turned itself over like a dying insect, and became “Without God, everything shall be impossible.”
Peter struggles to deny this grim logic as he debates whether he should stay with his alien congregation, who have grown to depend on him, or abandon his new church to return to his wife and his dying home. Faith is a matter of life and death to him—and we get the sense to the author, too, in this remarkable novel.