Michael Faber's new novel The Book of Strange New Things pulls a neat trick. At first, you think it's going to be about a human trying to explain our culture — and specifically Christianity — to aliens on the planet Oasis. But at some point, you realize it's about the fate of humanity, instead. And that's when it gets powerful.
Some spoilers ahead...
In The Book of Strange New Things, a missionary named Peter travels from Earth to the planet Oasis, where humans are just beginning to colonize. Peter tries to teach the aliens about the Bible, only to discover a number of them are already enthusiastic Christians, and the only names they go by are Jesus Lover One, Jesus Lover Five, Jesus Lover 48, and so on. Peter struggles to explain the real meaning of Christianity to minds so alien he can't even comprehend them.
And meanwhile, Peter is having a hard time communicating with the wife he left back on Earth, Bea, who is dealing with a very different set of challenges. For much of the book, Peter is getting swallowed up by his obsession with ministering to the Oasans, at the cost of his health and maybe his sanity, and meanwhile his wife is slowly falling apart, on an Earth that's not doing so well in general.
Some of the best books about exploring alien civilizations are really about trying to explain or export human culture to a different mindset. It's no accident this book reminded me of Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow, another book about a Christian visitor to alien races. But it also reminded me of Jim Munroe's brilliant "English teacher on an alien world" novel Angry Young Spaceman, along with bits of Le Guin.
Just the idea of translating human concepts for aliens is a great source of fascination — like Alan Moore's Green Lantern story where someone has to explain the lantern oath to a creature that lives in total darkness and has no concept of light. Here, Peter has to try and explain the Bible to people who've never seen sheep, much less shepherds. Most of the imagery in the Bible is as alien to the Oasans as a description of alien monsters would be to us.
At one point, Peter realizes how challenging this will be:
There were no oceans on Oasis, no large bodies of water, and presumably no fish.
No fish. He wondered whether this would cause comprehension problems when it came to certain crucial fish-related Bible stories. There were so many of those: Jonah and the whale, the miracle of the loaves and the fishes, the Galilean disciples being fishermen, the whole 'fishers of men' analogy . . . The bit in Matthew 13 about the kingdom of Heaven being like a net cast into the sea, gathering fish of every kind . . . Even in the opening chapter of Genesis, the first animals God made were sea creatures. How much of the Bible would he have to give up as untranslatable?
Author Michel Faber also wrote Under The Skin, the "alien on Earth" novel that was turned into one of this year's best movies, so he clearly has a gift for capturing weirdness and describing baffling encounters. And there is a lot of insane strangeness in this book, including our first meetings with the Oasans, whose faces are like two fetuses pressed together. And the weird, sterile human base on Oasis, where the people are sort of Stepford Wives-y.
You start to wonder if this planet is doing something to the people who visit it, especially after all the descriptions of the way the planet's atmosphere crawls inside your clothes and slithers around your body. And meanwhile, the Oasans themselves become more and more mysterious — both how they live, and what exactly has made them so desperate to learn about Jesus. You get some answers to your questions by the end of the book, but you're still left a sense of unknowable strangeness about the alien planet.
And Faber captures something really profound about what happens when you've been far away from home for a long time — home ceases to be real to you. At some point, you stop being able to picture things or remember their names, because your real world is where you are now. Towards the end of the book, Peter realizes he can no longer picture what a turkey looks like, because things back on Earth have ceased having any reality for him.
As one of the other humans on Oasis tells Peter, the divide between people on Earth and the people who've gone to the new planet "grows and grows, and finally, there's too much of it to cross."
And like I said, there's a neat trick where at some point, the mystery about Oasis and just what is going on with this planet starts to be overtaken by what we learn about events back on Earth, and our questions about the fate of the human race. And in fact, all of the stuff we've learned about humanity in the course of explaining this alien world starts to feel like a vital clue to whether humans even have a future in the universe. It's sobering and fascinating.
But even beyond its power as a story of cross-cultural encounters, and the questions it makes you ask about the place of humanity in the universe, Book of Strange New Things is also worth reading as a great personal story of a man and his wife, as their relationship faces the ultimate test. Peter is a fascinating character — a former drug addict and alcoholic, who found Jesus thanks to his nurse wife, and is now an inspiring pastor. His relationship with Bea is a great portrait of two people whose bond is formed by religious faith, but also has a lot of emotional wrinkles that feel true to life and intensely sad. And the relationship between Peter and Bea also provides some great insights into human nature, like when Peter muses about the weird nature of human happiness:
Happiness was such an elusive thing to spot: it was like a camouflaged moth that might or might not be hidden in the forest in front of you, or might have flown away. A young woman, newly in Christ, had said to him once, 'If you could've seen me a year ago, going out on the piss with my mates, we was so happy, we was laughing our heads off, we never stopped laughing, people was turning their heads to see what's so funny, wishing they could be having as good a time as us, we was flying, I was on top of the world, and all the time underneath I was thinking, God help me, I am so fucking lonely, I am so fucking sad, I wish I was dead, I cannot stand this life one minute longer, you know what I mean?' And then there was Ian Dewar, ranting about his time in the military, complaining about the cheapskates and the beancounters who'd robbed the troops of essential supplies, 'buy your own binoculars, mate, here's one flak jacket for every two guys, and if you get your foot blown off take two of these wee tablets 'cause we've not got any morphine for you.' Fifteen minutes into one of these rants, mindful that there were other people patiently waiting to speak to him, Peter had interrupted: 'Ian, forgive me, but you don't need to keep revisiting this stuff. God was there. He was there with you. He saw it happen. He saw everything.' And Ian had broken down and sobbed and said he knew that, he knew that, and that's why underneath it all, underneath the complaining and the anger, he was happy, truly happy.
And then there was Beatrice, on the day when he proposed to her, a day on which every conceivable thing had gone wrong. He'd proposed at 10.30 in the morning, in sweltering heat, as they stood at an automatic teller machine in the high street, preparing to do some grocery shopping at the supermarket. Maybe he should have gone down on one knee, because her 'Yes, let's' had sounded hesitant and unromantic, as though she regarded his proposal as nothing more than a pragmatic solution to the inconvenience of high rents. Then the teller machine had swallowed her debit card and she'd had to go into the bank to sort it out, which involved a meeting with the manager and a lamentable episode in which she was grilled for half an hour as if she was an imposter trying to defraud another Beatrice whose card she had stolen. This humiliation ended with Bea cancelling her relationship with the bank in a righteous fury. They'd gone shopping then, but were able to afford barely half the things on their list, and, when they emerged into the car park, they found that a vandal had scratched a crude swastika into the paintwork of their car. If it had been anything other than a swastika – a cartoon penis, a swear word, anything – they would probably have just lived with it, but this they had no choice but to get fixed, and it would cost them a fortune.
And so the day went on: Bea's phone ran out of battery and died, the first garage they drove to was shut, the second garage was booked up solid and not interested, a banana they tried to eat for lunch was rotten inside, a perished strap on Bea's shoe snapped, forcing her to limp, the car's engine started making a mysterious noise, a third garage gave them the bad news about what a new coat of enamel would cost, as well as pointing out that their exhaust was corroded. In the end it took them so long to get back to Bea's flat that the expensive lamb chops they'd bought had discoloured badly in the heat. That, for Peter, was the final straw. Rage sped through his nervous system; he seized the tray and was about to throw it into the rubbish bin, throw it with wildly excessive force, to punish the meat for being so vulnerable to decay. But it wasn't him who'd paid for it and he managed – just – to control himself. He put the groceries away in the fridge, splashed some water on his face and went in search of Bea.
He found her on the balcony, gazing down at the brick wall that surrounded her block of flats, a wall crowned with barbed wire and spikes of broken glass. Her cheeks were wet.
'I'm sorry,' he said.
She fumbled for his hand, and their fingers interlocked.
'I'm crying because I'm happy,' she explained, as the sun allowed itself to be veiled in clouds, the air grew milder and a gentle breeze stroked their hair. 'This is the happiest day of my life.'
And finally, this really is a great book about religious faith, and what it means to people, and how it can be both an enormous source of strength and insight, and at the same time a set of blinders. When Peter hears God speaking to him, is that his superego, his subconscious, or an actual divine voice? What can this story of sin and forgiveness possibly mean to aliens who appear to have no real concept of sin? When you take religion so far away from the context that it grew out of, does it still mean the same thing? Faber does a fantastic job teasing out the answers to these questions, in ways that show total respect for religion but also an unflinching architect's eye for the stress-points in human institutions.
One warning, though: There's a scene in this book where a cat gets horribly mistreated. Don't make the mistake I did, and read that scene late at night because you can't keep yourself from staying awake turning pages.