Intergalactic vision pulsing with energy
The Book of Strange New Things By Michel Faber Canongate, 560pp, $29.99 MICHEL Faber’s novel The Book of Strange New Things is light years away from his most famous work of fiction, the Victorian England drama The Crimson Petal and the White (2002). The new book is set on a planet called Oasis, and as such it is closer to his mind-expanding 2000 debut Under the Skin, in which an extraterrestrial travels to Earth, assumes a female human form and picks up unsuspecting hitchhikers who she then drugs and transports to her home planet — to be used as food.
On the second page of The Book of Strange New Things Faber hints at a retooled reprise of his startling debut. His hero, Peter, is driving to London’s Heathrow airport with his wife, Bea, when he spots a hitchhiker. Peter contemplates stopping but Bea tells him to keep going. They speed past and in doing so Faber swerves off, abandoning any further mention of hitchhikers but in due course conjuring up a brand new other-worldly experience.
After graduating from the ‘‘University of Hard Drinking and Drug Abuse’’ and then dicing with death for years as ‘‘a toxic waste of space’’, Peter found redemption first in Bea and then in God. His work as a minister proves attractive to the selection board of USIC, a multinational with global reach and a plan to build a sustainable environment on Oasis.
Recruited as a Christian missionary out of thousands of applicants, Peter is flown from Heathrow to Florida and then catapulted trillions of miles through time and space into a foreign solar system on ‘‘a ship in the shape of a swollen tick’’.
For want of a better pun, science fiction alienates. Readers who shun the genre may be inclined to give up at this point, horrified at the prospect of 500 more pages of intergalactic hokum. However, Faber is a master at subverting preconceptions, and his sui generis, multithemed books are as hard to pin down as his nationality (Australia, Scotland and The Netherlands all claim him as one of their own). It is worth persevering with the knowledge this author is working from a compelling and thought-provoking agenda that not once features laser battles with little green men.
Oasis, it transpires, is no forbidden planet. Contrary to his initial fears, when Peter steps out of the ship he does not ‘‘instantly die, get sucked into an airless vortex, or shrivel up like a scrap of fat on a griddle’’. The air is moist, the water potable and the natives diffident but hospitable. Peter spends his time navigating two camps, both of which feel like he has taken a backward step rather than a quantum leap.
Home is the curiously lo-tech USIC compound with its ‘‘hotel chain’’ ambience, dearth of entertainment but nonstop supply of piped muzak; work is in a positively primitive alien settlement, less a fantastical city, more ‘‘a suburb, erected in the middle of a wasteland’’. Its citizens turn out to be ‘‘hungry for Christ’’ and with a ‘‘thirst for the Gospel’’ and it isn’t long before Peter has a congregation eager to hear him imparting wisdom from the Bible — aka The Book of Strange New Things.
When the requisite tension comes it is not in the form of an Avatar- esque clash between plundering humans and subjugated Oasans, with Peter switching allegiance and supporting the natives. Instead, we learn through Bea’s missives to Peter that Earth has been ravaged by catastrophe — financial meltdowns, food shortages, natural disasters — and is not worth returning to. As Bea loses her faith and Peter’s fate becomes as unpredictable as his actions, we are left guessing Faber’s outcome: will his ‘‘leftie pastor’’ go native, AWOL or insane?
There is much to admire here, not least Faber’s fecund imagination. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Peter’s trips to ‘‘Freaktown’’ and his close encounters with the Oasans — robed creatures whose faces resemble placentas with two foetuses (‘‘maybe three-monthold twins, hairless and blind’’) and who speak English in quirky ways and their own language in ‘‘rustlings and burbles and squimphs’’.
On a more human level, Faber impresses with Peter’s will-they-won’t-they relationship with Grainger, a troubled American woman; and with his exchange with Tartaglione, a booze-soaked lost soul who, while ranting, delivers pertinent home truths about USIC’s flawed mission to construct a utopia in the heavens.
To enter sci-fi or fantasy realms the reader needs to suspend all disbelief and go with the creator’s flow. But dazzling inventiveness should never blind us to a book’s technical infelicities, those loose nuts and bolts. The Book of Strange New Things suffers from some creaky Bmovie dialogue (which would be fine if it were a pastiche, but it isn’t) and plot holes big enough to fly a space shuttle through: why has Peter signed up for a life-threatening mission with USIC, a company he has never heard of, whose initials are still a mystery to him, and which has fobbed him off with an ‘‘uninformative infopack’’? And why is he unconcerned about the fact that the pastor he is replacing has gone missing in action?
In the final analysis, it doesn’t matter whether Faber is this careless or Peter this naive. This is a novel so busy pulsing with ideas and energy, brimming with critical questions and arresting visions, that we accept its defects as mere blemishes and allow ourselves to get swept along by the giddily exciting proceedings. Faber deftly handles the juxtaposition between religion and science, creation and discovery, and his dystopia — not the ‘‘big fat nowhere’’ Peter travels to but the quantifiable world he has left behind — is chillingly convincing.
At the beating heart of the book lies a message about mankind’s overreach and the enduring power of love and faith. We can read it for that, but ultimately it is more fun to watch how Faber warps and reshapes reality. Fittingly, the result is a stellar achievement.
It is always fun to see how Michel Faber, left, warps and reshapes reality