The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber – Canongate BooksThe awkwardness of this medium amplifies to screaming pitch our sense of the emotional space between them. Peter, meanwhile, finds it hard to focus on anything but his situation. The jump between worlds causes him to hallucinate. Oasis is too much to take in. His mission is financed by and carried out under the auspices of a shadowy corporate called Usic.
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A comparable journey takes place in the best works of science fiction — an imaginative visit to speculative realms that returns the reader more forcibly to the sad and beautiful facts of human existence. Peter is a pastor who has been selected to travel to a newly colonized planet at the request of its native population. In his previous novels, Faber chose to work in the kinds of disreputable genres that tend to elicit indifference, at best, from reviewers and prize committees. They include a planet, named Oasis by the mysteriously acronymed corporation USIC that runs it; a complacent and incurious human work force at a base on the nascent colony; a predecessor who has gone missing in unexplained circumstances; and an inscrutable alien people. Once arrived on Oasis, Peter uncovers his new world and his new mission an inch and an insect at a time.
I n an industry where novelists are increasingly encouraged to produce more of whatever proves successful, as often as possible, Michel Faber has made a virtue of unpredictability. His novels and story collections skip nimbly across genres and epochs, his imagination and storytelling gifts equally at home in a world of macabre sci-fi or lush Victorian sensationalism. Aside from short stories, in the past decade he has produced only one longer work, The Fire Gospel , a retelling of the Prometheus story. Faber eases his readers gently into the strangeness of his imagined world. The novel opens as Christian pastor Peter Leigh is preparing to be separated from his wife Bea for the first time since their marriage.
A missionary is sent to spread the gospel to a distant planet, and the the very notion of what is means to be human is grappled with in unusually direct terms. A Christian missionary has been requested by the somewhat mysterious company running the human settlement there; a Christian missionary is what Peter is, and so, having been deemed capable by a battery of personality tests, he has taken up the brief. But what of the will of Beatrice, his beloved wife and habitual partner in proselytising, left far behind on Earth? His voice on the page is serene and oddly innocent; and Faber himself is routinely described by the journalists with whom he reluctantly speaks as serious, childlike, vulnerable, with a mixed background Dutch-born, Australian-raised, Scotland-dwelling that may account for a fascination with aliens and alienation. The combination of qualities that comes across from him and his writing — a keen awareness of the darkest things in life, a wide-eyed curiosity about why they occur and a stubborn appreciation of the beauty with which they co-exist, all wedded to a certain perpetual outsider-dom — is a good fit for a religious missionary, though Faber himself is an atheist. Crucially for the sincerity of The Book of Strange New Things , Peter and his faith are presented without mockery, and the story of his mission as an experience befalling a real, feeling man, not — say — an allegory for what damage dogma and conversion have done in the world. So prevalent in the ranks of the verbose intelligentsia is the notion of all religion as a mere cover story for greed and wrongdoing that the depiction of a religious man as a sincere do-gooder feels discreetly radical, and permits Faber to ask profound questions not about the performance or misapplication of faith, but about the true condition thereof — and how that condition can be reconciled to a collective existence plagued by undeserved misfortune.