The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber, book review: An interplanetary mission back to the heart of darkness

This is a novel of big ideas by a writer of unusual intelligence and lucidity, and it lingers in the mind after the final page is turned

Doug Johnstone
Friday 24 October 2014 16:06 BST
Michel Faber, London
Michel Faber, London

Since the publication of his wonderfully crafted debut novel Under the Skin in 2000, Michel Faber has proven himself, over the course of nine books, to be a highly original and deeply thoughtful writer.

From the macabre yet prosaic horror of that debut to the Victorian melodrama of his biggest seller The Crimson Petal and the White, Faber has used a wide range of genres and subject matter to peer in minute detail at what it means to be human.

And that focus is ultra-sharp in this latest absorbing and enthralling novel. The premise is simple but ingenious. We spend the entirety of The Book of Strange New Things in the company of Peter, a Christian minister sent on a mission to a far away planet called Oasis with the sole purpose of bringing the word of God to the indigenous population.

He is employed by a rather mysterious multinational corporation called USIC, who have established a base on Oasis, and Peter shares his time between the engineers and grunts on the base and the benign Oasans in their more primitive settlement, without electricity and with long, long nights to fill.

Peter isn’t starting completely from scratch, though, as a previous pastor named Kurtzberg has already educated the Oasans in the “techniques of Jesus” as they put it, before disappearing and apparently going native. There is an obvious homage to Heart of Darkness here, and that book certainly haunts the pages of The Book of Strange New Things, but this novel is very much an original and thought-provoking read in its own right.

In juxtaposing the human with the alien, Faber here repeats the trick he performed in Under the Skin of casting a new light on old subject matter. He is asking big questions about the nature of human existence, the nature of faith and belief, also questions about the malleable nature of morality.

But underneath it all he is examining the nature of language and communication. The Oasans have a very different physiognomy to humans, with no discernable mouths or eyes for example, and they struggle to pronounce certain sounds. These sounds are cleverly represented in the text as alien letters or characters, a technique that lends veracity to the initial struggle Peter has in communicating with his flock.

Indeed, it’s not just the language but the very mindset of the creatures that Peter finds so distancing to begin with, but over time he becomes more accustomed to their ways of thinking, talking, and behaving.

At the same time he is becoming increasingly emotionally distanced from his wife, Bea, stuck back on Earth. Peter and Bea can only communicate through an expensive and laborious system of messages called the Shoot, and as Bea reveals a series of natural and man-made disasters occurring billions of miles away on Earth, Peter gradually begins to feel more and more distant and alienated from his home on the other side of the galaxy.

This creeping sense of otherness and alienation is something that pervades all of The Book of Strange New Things, and has been a near constant preoccupation in all of Faber’s writing. Everyone in this novel feels removed from their environment and those around them in one way or another, and Faber seems to be saying that all communication is, by its nature, a kind of fatal compromise, doomed to failure from the start.

It’s to the author’s credit that he plays all of this with a straight bat. It would’ve been very easy to set up Peter’s authentic Christian beliefs for satire, to ridicule him as hopelessly naive and his mission as pointless. But Faber does a good job of depicting Peter’s religion with honesty and warmth, opening up the story to much more interesting questions about how to maintain such belief in the face of terrible hardship.

The book isn’t without a few niggling problems though. The vagueness about, and lack of interest in, USIC from all their employees stretches credibility somewhat, especially considering the astronomical expenses surely involved in such an interplanetary colonisation. I was never totally convinced by Peter’s backstory of being a drunk and a drug addict before being converted to the faith by Bea. And the sub plot of Earthly catastrophes being reported by Peter’s wife seems to rather fade from view as Peter becomes more entrenched in the Oasans’ settlement. Also, Faber’s deliberately slow and steady prose style does tend to plod a little when stretched out over nearly 550 pages.

But the genuinely inquisitive and searching story in The Book of Strange New Things ultimately trumps such minor logistical concerns. This is a novel of big ideas by a writer of unusual intelligence and lucidity, and it lingers in the mind after the final page is turned.

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