Bea is a nurse, but she also shares a ministry with Peter, an evangelical Christian pastor whose recent life has been entirely devoted to his flock. They live in England and are on their way to the airport because Peter’s vocation is calling him—but only him— to a faraway place.
Near the airport, Beatrice pleads with Peter to pull the car over, and the couple make unglamorous, urgent love right there, one last time. Their parting is difficult and painful for them both.
The Book of Strange New Things was given to me for my birthday, and because its dust jacket reveals very little about the story, what happens next came as a terrific surprise.
Having first flown to Florida, Peter later awakens feeling nauseous, disoriented and experiencing hallucinations which are just some of the side-effects of the Jump. He’s now, in fact, millions of light years away from Bea, in another galaxy, on a planet named Oasis.
Peter, we learn, has been recruited by USIC, a secretive and powerful corporation with a very long reach (we never find out what the acronym stands for). His job is to preach the Gospel to the planet’s indigenous population. As beginnings go, this one is pretty auspicious. Peter is an intergalactic missionary.
Some of the discussions about Michel Faber’s novel center around the question of whether it’s genuine science fiction or more “literary” fiction disguised as sci fi. I suppose the question is important to readers whose tastes are genre specific, but I also think that it’s the wrong way to approach this thoughtful and mesmerising novel.
Despite its faraway address, the world that Faber has built is self-contained and spartan. The story unfolds in a circumscribed area of Oasis, and we’re never given a definitive sense of the planet’s full expanse or of its ecological diversity. We go where Peter goes, which is basically between the USIC base and the Oasan settlement. And even then…
The USIC base is a transplanted, entirely human construction, meant as the first phase of the colonisation of a homo sapiens compatible planet. It’s an austere environment that feels a lot like an airport to Peter. Functionality is the overriding design principle. It’s home to several dozen humans (we’re never told exactly how many), all specialists in their fields (I think it’s an engineering and I.T. haven).
Almost from his first moments on Oasis, Peter is aching to go out and seek the natives on their own turf, which is both decipherable and completely alien.
On Oasis, the cycles of day and night last much longer than Earth’s, throwing off everyone’s circadian rhythms. The atmosphere is saturated with a swirling moisture—even in sunshine— that appears to actively seek to infiltrate the openings in people’s bodies and clothing. Rain travels in multiple giant columns that can be observed moving from a distance. It falls in predictable patterns and tastes and smells like melon. Liquid manna.
One plant, known as whiteflower, grows in abundance, and much like Earth’s soybean, lends itself to transformation into meat-like protein, as well as flour and paste that can be flavoured. It’s a staple of the Oasans’ diet, and they tend its growth and harvest it regularly. The humans at the base are also dependent on it to supplement their limited supplies from Earth.
This is, in essence, the connection that makes Peter’s role on Oasis so critical. USIC is eager to maintain a peaceful and mutually beneficial relationship with the Oasans. What the base workers want is clear: a steady stream of whiteflower products and knowledge about Oasis and its population. In return, the Oasans have asked for two things: medicines and a new pastor—healing for the body and the soul. Grainger, the base pharmacist, handles the periodic exchanges of whiteflower foods for medicine with the Oasans.
But why a pastor? Peter learns that he’s not the first to fill this role, and that the previous Christian pastor, Jacob Kurtzberg, has disappeared, as has Tartaglione, the linguist sent to establish communication between the Oasans and humans. It’s Kurtzberg who has introduced the Oasans to the Bible, which they call “the Book of Strange New Things”, and Tartaglione who has broken the language barrier between peoples.
Peter’s first contact is a stunning moment in the novel. Bipedal but significantly smaller than humans (under five and a half feet), small-boned and with narrow shoulders, for Peter, the Oasan’s are indistinguishable one from the other through most of the novel, They appear before him hidden under hooded, monkish robes that differ only in colour (they make them in a wide variety of pastel shades), and their bodies show no clear signs of gender. Their hands are aways covered by gloves.
But it’s their faces that provide the greatest challenge to Peter:
“Here was a face that was nothing like a face. Instead, it was a massive whitish-pink walnut kernel. Or no: even more, it resembled a placenta with two foetuses—maybe three-month-old twins, hairless and blind—nestled head to head, knee to knee. Their swollen heads constituted the Oasan’s forehead, so to speak; their puny ribbed backs formed his cheeks, their spindly arms and webbed feet merged in a tangle of translucent flesh that might contain—in some form unrecognizable to him—a mouth, nose, eyes.”
I found that hard to imagine, so I settled on a mental image of an E.T.-like person with a swirly non-face.
Faber doesn’t allow himself to get bogged down by the science and the details of world building in his narrative, because that’s not the story he’s trying to tell.
The Book of Strange New Things is less a tale about the discovery of new and alien worlds than it is about the journeys of individual people—both human and Oasan. And above all else, it’s a love story.
Peter’s link to Bea is a piece of technology called the Shoot—a sort of intergalactic email—which he can access at the base. As his missionary fervour increases, Peter becomes more and more detached from his fellow humans, less eager to return to base after each stay with the Oasans. His messages to Bea become increasingly scarce and erratic.
Meanwhile, back in England, Beatrice’s life is falling apart. Although no clear date is provided, it seems logical that we’re talking about the twenty-first century—perhaps twenty or thirty years into the future. The effects of global warming appear to have accelerated. Tornadoes, floods and other terrifying extreme weather events are destroying the global economy and causing social and political chaos, and England isn’t spared.
The stream of Bea’s understanding, then worried, then angry, then anguished messages to her husband, and his infrequent and insufficient answers, offer beautiful and painful insight into the lives of these two loving and wounded people. As Peter’s ability to communicate with the Oasans begins to improve, his ability to express, to Bea, the transformative effects of his experiences and his love and concern for her fails.
The Book of Strange New Things was a fascinating read. It’s a lengthy book, but I couldn’t put it down. That’s thanks, certainly, to the strange and melancholy world of Oasis that drew me in and held me under its spell. But even more so thanks to the cast of compelling characters: Peter and Bea, the colonists working at the base (especially Grainger) and the Oasans: Jesus Lover One, Lover Three, Lover Twenty-Three, and heartbreaking Lover Five…
The novel is filled with scriptural references that Peter quotes frequently and from memory. They are his bridge to the Oasans which in time, sadly, lead him away from Beatrice.
So many questions ran through my mind as I read:
Is the environment a character?
Is it benign or malevolent?
Why was Peter separated from Bea?
What is the endgame for USIC on Oasis?
What will USIC do with the knowledge it acquires?
Why are the Oasans so impassive?
Why do they wear gloves?
Why do they eschew physical contact?
Why is the Gospel so important to them?
What are their intentions?
How many Oasans are not Jesus Lovers?
Where are Kurtzberg and Tartaglione?
What has happened to them?
Most of these questions are answered.
Everyone in this story carries the pain of their experiences, making the novel’s ultimate message all the more compelling:
“We are all specialised forms of survivor, Peter reminded himself. We lack what we fundamentally need and forge ahead regardless, hurriedly hiding our wounds, disguising our ineptitude, bluffing our way through our weaknesses. No one—especially not a pastor—should lose sight of that truth. Whatever he did, however low he sank, he must never stop believing all men were his brothers.
And all women.
All all [Oasans].”
OTHER BOOKS BY PETER FABER: