Thursday, 11 December 2014

The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber Review

Sometime in the future, humanity has discovered they are not alone in the universe: on a distant planet named Oasis dwells a race of supremely ugly aliens (their faces are described as two foetuses fused together!) - and they LOVE Jeebus. So much so that they’re withholding food from the handful of human colonists on their planet until they get a replacement missionary.

Enter Peter Leigh, a former homeless junkie thief turned born-again Christian minister selected by the USIC Corporation to be sent to Oasis and preach from the Bible, which the Oasans refer to as The Book of Strange New Things. But why are the Oasans so enamoured with Christianity? And what happened to their last minister…? 

That’s the setup for Michel Faber’s latest doorstopper-sized novel, and it’s actually quite enticing and original-seeming at first. Except that summary is misleading because this book is actually about how long distance relationships don’t work. I know – pick your jaw up off the floor because that’s revelatory information, right? But that is essentially the whole book which wouldn’t be so bad if I cared a bit about either Peter or his wife Bea but I didn’t. 

Peter heads to Oasis while Bea remains on Earth. Things go well for Peter – the Oasans are receptive and he enjoys his time on the planet; things for badly for Bea as the world around her falls apart – China invades the Middle East and ends up controlling their oil supply, global supermarket chains go bankrupt, freak weather decimates countries, wars erupt, governments topple, it’s the complete and total collapse of Western civilisation. 

Make no mistake though: The Book of Strange New Things is an utterly tedious read. Beyond the novelty of meeting the Oasans, there’s nothing much to them. They’re around five feet tall, they’re ugly, they’re a very simple, agrarian-based culture, and many of them believe the word of God completely. Little is added to this knowledge as the novel progresses. 

The only “conflict” Peter encounters is trying to make the Bible stories work for his new flock as they have trouble pronouncing “s” and “t” in their tongue as well as understanding some of the imagery (they don’t have sheep or fish so wouldn’t know what stories involving them would mean), so he rewrites them to make it easier for them to speak and grasp. He doesn’t have to try to convert them as a large number are already devout Christians and he doesn’t encounter the ones who aren’t. Easier and easier. 

He gets on with his fellow humans on the USIC base for the most part. They’re a gentle but soulless bunch consumed with work – they are the best in the professions: engineering, geology, biology, medicine, etc. A giant (read: “evil”) corporation behind this space endeavour? Never seen that in a sci-fi alien story! The only thing missing was the meat-head soldier archetype but there are no weapons or fighting in the book so they’re absent. 

Wondering where the drama/story here is? There isn’t any! Maybe you’re thinking Oasis is some wonderful vista paradise like Pandora in Avatar? Think again! It’s a completely flat landscape with no discernible features. The Oasans are completely isolated besides some weird duck creatures who appear a couple times (so how did they evolve exactly?), their simple huts, and their fields of whiteflower which they grow to trade for medicine with the humans. I don’t need the landscape to be extraordinary I just wish Faber would give me something, anything, than nothing! 

This is barely genre writing. Because it’s set on an alien planet doesn’t make it sci-fi, or at least it’s not a good representation of that genre’s heights (despite the way some readers look down upon sci-fi as a “lesser” genre). Good sci-fi is imaginative – The Book of Strange Things is not. 

Peter’s wife Bea, though extremely whiny and annoying, tells Peter and the reader through her emails (sent via the Shoot – why did they rename a computer, a Shoot? What was wrong with “computer”?) of troubles on Earth, which I mentioned earlier. These emails are the only real conflict in the book by the way.

It seems that her story would’ve been much more interesting to read than Peter’s. Instead we’re subjected to the most monotonous non-story ever: Peter telling the Oasans some Bible stories. Peter helping them harvest the whiteflower crop. Peter trying to learn their language. Peter having trouble sleeping and looking at the stars. Peter walking across a flat landscape drinking melon-flavoured water. Peter staring blankly at nothing. This book is nearly 600 pages long!! Cut out the tedious crap and you’ll have a mediocre 100-150 page novel instead of an awful 600 page one. 

And speaking of Bea’s increasingly difficult life on doomed Earth, USIC do their best to censor their off-world staff from news of Earth’s collapse by ripping out pages of magazines/newspapers arriving at the base - but they don’t censor Bea’s emails even though they have the capability to do so? Her emails contain the most damning information! 

I will say that Faber’s prose is for the most part clear and accessible. He may not be able to tell a tight, fast-moving story anymore, but he can still write quite well. And I did like some scenes in the book, particularly with the former minister who went native, and Grainger, the USIC pharmacist, as she fell apart on Oasis. I had her and Peter pegged to have a rushed, embarrassing affair though Faber thankfully steered clear of that – though he did everything he could to hint at its possibility!

And I liked how many of the USIC characters were named after Marvel Comics writers from the Silver Age, in particular Jakob Kurtzberg, the missing former minister, who mirrors the real name of Jack Kirby (technically a Golden Age creator). Who was Jack Kirby, non-comics reader? Creator of much of the Marvel Universe: Captain America, Thor, Hulk, Fantastic Four and the X-Men to name a few - and a preacher of a kind himself who lived in the stars! 

Faber’s look at Christianity is just not insightful. What do we learn? That Bea converted Peter when he was a troubled criminal. He bought into the religion and became a personable minister. Away from his wife, her troubles overwhelm her and she loses her faith. And? 

Also, how easy is it to write a devout Christian character? “Jesus saves. God has a plan for everything. Trust in the Bible and our Lord – he shall provide” etc. This isn’t great writing or characterisation.

The Christian overtones to the story were too on the nose and weren’t enough to redeem it. The book has 28 chapters like the Gospel of Matthew (which is repeatedly referenced), Peter is bitten by an animal, seeming to die (in the eyes of the Oasans) and return a la Christ after the crucifixion (not really but to the Oasans perhaps), the walking through the wilderness with Grainger (temptation). Does Peter become like Christ to them? Is this how Christ was to us – an alien? Is this how religions start? Maybe some people will be blown away by these aspects of the book but I could not care less – I was beaten into apathy at this point by the slug-like pacing. 

As there’s no real story the book doesn’t build to a big finish, or any kind of finish at all really, and simply ends. It couldn’t be more dissatisfying or anticlimactic. 

Faber’s Strange New Things is a deeply unimaginative novel. The sci-fi element is poorly conceived and uninteresting – Oasis and the Oasans could not be more dull. The book drags on for hundreds of pages without a plot, with barely any character development, and with hardly a thing happening to break up the boredom. The whole “Earth’s collapse” felt forced, done because Bea’s life needed to get worse so that she and Peter could fight via email, not because it was convincing on any level. I mean, China invading the Middle East – what?! 

I’ve enjoyed Faber’s work over the years from Under the Skin to The Fire Gospel to his short stories in Some Rain Must Fall, but The Book of Strange New Things is gimmicky and horribly boring. It’s far too long with much too little substance. Arguably this is his worst novel – I can see why he’s saying he’s giving up on writing any more of them seeing how uninspired this one turned out! Unlike the Oasans and the Bible, most people will have more than enough of this book long before its end. It was a real struggle to get there and not really worth it. 

(Side note: there’s some question among some reviewers as to why the Oasans would so readily accept Christianity though Faber does explain this in the book. Here’s why, and it’s actually one of the few parts of the novel I liked - oh, and SPOILERS!:

If humans are cut, the wound stops bleeding, scabs over, the platelets in our blood do their work, maybe some pus follows, but we soon heal. If an Oasan is cut, and the cut becomes infected, they die. Their bodies are completely defenceless. Christianity preaches healing and rebirth. The Oasans are a race who cannot heal naturally and take everything literally so they would embrace Christianity’s message of healing as a solution to their plight.)

The Book of Strange New Things

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